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African migrants use music to integrate in Cyprus

Skyband group Cyprus   -  
Copyright © africanews


It "breaks down barriers": in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, music is helping African asylum seekers to integrate and forget their precarious situation, even if for a song's duration.

Ibrahim Kamara, a 29-year-old Gambian, arrived at the Mediterranean island five years ago. One morning, he saw a djembe in a store, an African percussion instrument that immediately reminded him of his homeland.

"Like me, it came from Brikama," Gambia's second-largest city, confides the musician, who was offered a similar instrument some time later.

Playing the djembe was "a breath of fresh air" for Ibrahim who, after arriving on the island, lived with a dozen other people in a tent in a Nicosia park, sometimes in stifling heat.

"It was really difficult, we had no food" and "(we had to) queue to drink from a fountain", he recalls.

In addition to deprivation, he says he suffered from racism in a country where almost 5% of the 915,000 inhabitants are asylum seekers, and where 1,500 applications are lodged every month, according to the Cypriot government.

"A common humanity"

"One day, at the bank, as I was standing next to someone in a queue, this person pulled away from me and put on a mask," says Ibrahim, still waiting for a response to his asylum application.

But little by little, he says that "thanks to the drums, I was able to create a bond" with the Cypriot population. Djembé means "bringing people together" in Bambara, a language widely used in West Africa, he likes to point out.

Today, he runs music workshops every Monday after receiving support from the European association Project Phoenix, which since 2018 has helped a dozen illegal immigrants to integrate professionally on the island.

And what's more, the income from these courses, added to another odd job, has enabled her to find a "nice" three-room flat-share.

But above all, these workshops enable him to introduce his world to Cypriots.

Panayiota Constanti, who joined the percussionist's classes a year and a half ago during a session in a Nicosia park, believes that "our country needs to discover their culture" so that we can better "welcome them".

Like Ibrahim, Isaac Yossi, a Cameroonian who calls himself "Big Yoss", wanted to bring migrants and Cypriots together around a common project. Three years ago, he founded the Skyband music group.

With six other African asylum seekers, they play in restaurants, at weddings and private parties in Cyprus, fusing African rhythms with Greek music to pay tribute to "a common humanity".

"Human beings"

Skeptical at first, Cypriots "change their outlook" when "I start singing in Greek", says Isaac at a rehearsal, acoustic guitar in hand, after playing "Tha Mai Edo", by the famous Greek singer Konstantinos Argiros.

To integrate, he learned Greek, the language spoken in the southern part of the island, which is administered by the UN-recognized Cypriot government. Turkish is the language used in the northern part, which was invaded by Turkey in 1974.

The island doesn't offer enough "opportunities" for migrants to showcase their talents, laments Maria Demosthenous, piano teacher and manager of Isaac's band.

"When we think of migrants, we don't imagine that they can entertain us or make good music," says the 43-year-old Cypriot, who campaigns for them to perform more on stage.

"We need to see them as human beings, as the people they were before they became migrants."