Country music without borders

Country music without borders
Country & Western gives way to Country & Eastern in this melting pot of music raising money for Syria's refugees in Turkey.
5 min read
14 April, 2017
Country for Syria blends American Deep South traditions with Middle Eastern influences [Jérémie Berlioux]
Amid Istanbul's vibrant music scene, a small band has hit relative fame thanks to its curious musical blend and humanitarian purpose.

Country For Syria, formed by Owen Harris, an American accordionist, and Bashar Balleh, a Syrian guitarist, blend American Country music and Arabic folk songs - and uses its concerts to support refugee families.

Their aim, they say, is to create a small space for humanity at a time of rising nationalism and populism.

Harris and Balleh created Country For Syria in December 2015, and it happened by chance.

Balleh, 24, had arrived from Latakia, Syria, a year previously. He would give up on Europe in July of the same year after almost drowning on a deflated dinghy while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Harris, in his late twenties, also came to Istanbul in 2015, motivated to use his musical talents to good use for the refugee crisis.

"The refugee crisis is the obvious emergency in the world. That's the easiest place to help," he told The New Arab.

At each venue, the band collects money in a cowboy hat and donates it to a refugee family supported by Humanwire, an NGO for which both Harris and Balleh work. So far, Country For Syria has performed more than 75 concerts, supported around 70 families, and developed a diverse fan base.

Building bridges at the Bosphoros

Despite its humanitarian intentions, the band struggles in Turkey's climate of rising nationalism and populism.

"We used to play for Syrian children every week with an NGO. That was until the neighbours started throwing bricks at us," says Harris. "It's because it was for Syrians," claims Balleh.

Although Turkey has welcomed more than two million Syrians, they are becoming more and more resented by many. Nonetheless, the band remains committed to building bridges.

"The [musical] keys and themes are similar in Country music and Arabic folk songs," says Balleh. The two styles speak about murder, love, migration, and losing the homeland - and describe the mountains and rivers that people miss.

"First, we would segment the music, without mixing songs," explained Harris. But as they played, the two styles blended, and the lines between Country and Arabic styles blurred - becoming a bridge between two cultures.

As nationalism and populism grow in the US, Europe and Turkey, the fate of refugees is becoming more and more unsure.

"These past four years, locals have negatively changed their minds regarding refugees," explains Basak Oktay, a 27-year-old Turkish ukulele player.

She joined Country For Syria with a wish to promote acceptance and reverse this trend. "Here on stage, you can see the results instantly - compared with the projects that take months."

Within two years, the band has acquired a diverse group of fans following them from concert to concert. Originally, the fans could be divided into three groups: expats and NGO worker happy with everything; locals who were restive at the mixture of styles; and Syrians who preferred Arabic songs.
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"As we developed our music blending styles, the three groups became one audience," Harris explains.

An apolitical band?

Even though today refugees are often exploited as pawns in world politics, Country For Syria's musicians disagree on whether or not their music is "political". Balleh rejects any politicisation. Harris says the band is politically diverse.

"We have communists and capitalists," says the accordionist. Country For Syria does not play political songs about the Syrian conflict. 

However, time to time, they do allow other political issues to enter the repertoire. Soon after they formed the band, Harris and Balleh, with a group of Clowns Without Borders, headed to the south-east of Turkey, then the theatre of intense fighting between Kurdish guerillas and the Turkish armed forces.

Threatened by the army near the city of Mardin, they wrote their misadventure into a song, Brave As A Pigeon:

"Just like a clown from the rodeo/Out east to sing songs with the circus I've ridden/Boots and a hat and accordion/Just a cowboy in a land whose name is forbidden."

Country For Syria draws a link between today's Syria experiences and the American Civil War, from which Country music emerged. Once the anthem of the South during the American Civil War, Dixie is now often considered a hallmark of racism and southern nationalism.

It tells the story of a former slave who misses slavery.

Surprisingly, it made its way into Country For Syria's songbook.

"I felt that by mixing it with an Arabic song, we were creating a comparison that shows that the US also went through a Civil War, people were displaced, there were refugees, there were losers and winners, there was violence," says Harris.

The band usually plays
Corn Bread and Butter Beans, an African-American country song, after chanting Dixie. In doing so, the band wants to acknowledge that African slaves gave Country music many of its most recognisable patterns, such as the banjo and trade-mark rhythm.

"That's political," says Harris. "It goes deep into American identity."

Caught by Trump's ban

American politics has recently caught up with the band's routine. Donald Trump's first atttempt at a "Muslim ban" had a direct impact on the band's musicians, including Balleh.

Country For Syria released a video and song,
In the States, in reaction to the executive order aimed at banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from enter the US.

Although his wife is a US citizen, Balleh says he was not sad about the ban:
"I don't really want to go to the States," he says. "It's insulting, but I also feel proud that this person is very bothered by people like me - Syrians and Muslims."

The band met with great success on their first tour of the US, last October. But Trump's politics threatens follow-up tours.
"Even if the ban is not technically in place - sponsors are still wary about giving money, because of the uncertainty," says Harris.

Politics have thus certainly influenced the way they feel about playing.

Since Trump won the election, there is something that makes me hesitant even about Country music, even about American culture and spreading it," says Harris. "If we can produce Trump, what is the value in our culture?" 

Building bridges seem to have never been as important as today.

"We should have called ourselves Country for Humanity," says Balleh, grinning.

Jérémie Berlioux is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter: @jberlioux