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Musicians in Exile: the Glasgow orchestra helping rebuild the lives of refugees

Asylum seekers from around the world are being given chance to sing, play and share stories and songs

Written by
Malcolm Jack

When Angaddeep Singh Vig arrived in Glasgow from India as an 18-year-old asylum seeker in January 2020, without any of his beloved musical instruments, he remembers feeling like ‘a guy without a soul’.

Singh Vig is now 21 and his accent heavily tinged by Glasgow (just named the fourth best city in the world according to Time Out readers, fyi). ‘Music is part and parcel of my life,’ he says, and it has been ever since his father bought him a set of tabla hand drums aged just four. By his mid-teens Singh Vig had mastered not only that instrument but also the harmonium and flute, as well as singing. He had even begun teaching music. But when he and his parents were forced to flee India due to violent persecution by criminal gangs, they left with next to nothing, arriving in a strange and faraway land unable to work, study or begin rebuilding their lives.

More than two years later, Singh Vig lives with his mother and father in temporary accommodation in Govan, as they continue their long and agonising wait for leave to remain in the UK. But thanks to Musicians In Exile – Glasgow’s asylum seeker and refugee orchestra – he has got his soul back, and then some.

Instead of looking for musicians in the Middle East, I look for Middle Eastern musicians in Govan

Started in 2019, the project is the brainchild of Paul MacAlindin, a freelance conductor who has worked with orchestras and ensembles all over the world, from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to the Armenian Philharmonic and the Düsseldorf Symphoniker. From 2009 to 2014, MacAlindin was music director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq – a maverick mission to help young musicians in the country pull themselves out of the horrors of war. ‘And it worked,’ he says, ‘until the invasion of Islamic State.’

The orchestra collapsed, and so did MacAlindin, ‘mentally and physically,’ he says, ‘because after investing all the energy of keeping that thing alive and then having it stopped in such a dramatic fashion, I was just left completely floored.’ He moved back to his native Scotland to heal, choosing Govan purely as a cheap place to put a roof over his head. There, quite by luck, he suddenly found himself among the diverse and in many cases displaced communities of the former shipbuilding district on the south bank of the River Clyde – which is also the location of a branch of the Home Office, and thus is home to a lot of asylum seekers and refugees.

MacAlindin founded The Glasgow Barons – an award-winning ‘regeneration orchestra’ set up to help revitalise Govan through performances in local venues by musicians of all backgrounds. Musicians in Exile grew out of that, as a way of helping to give musician asylum seekers and refugees in the area a chance to gather every Tuesday evening to sing, play and share their talents, experiences, stories and songs. 

‘Musicians In Exile is the inverse of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq,’ says MacAlindin. ‘Instead of looking for musicians in the Middle East, I look for Middle Eastern musicians in Govan. I just flipped the model round.’

Be they Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Kurdish, Albanian, El Salvadorian or of any other nationality, all musicians are welcome. Even if they don’t speak good English – as few new arrivals to the country do. ‘Music is a far easier communication tool than language,’ says MacAlindin.

If members don’t have instruments, then MacAlindin – who receives funding from the People’s Postcode Trust, the Robertson Trust, and Creative Scotland Lottery – sources and buys them one, however rare it may be (he’s currently in the market for an Albanian two-string plucked instrument called a çifteli). During lockdowns, when sessions had to be moved online, he also helped his members to buy digital devices and access to the internet so they could keep communicating and playing together.

 ‘The Queen is watching me,’ he remembers thinking. ‘I cannae believe it.’

Through Musicians in Exile, as well as the generosity of others in his local community, Singh Vig now not only has a tabla again, but also a harmonium, a violin, a mandolin and an electric guitar (which he quickly learned to play, despite never having touched one before). ‘Now I’ve got many souls,’ he laughs. His father and mother, who are also musicians, come along to sessions too – Singh Vig credits it with helping to pull them both out of a deep malaise and, in his father’s case, even clinical depression.

Singh Vig and Musicians In Exile have played several high-profile concerts. They included one at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, and two performances at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh – the first a pre-recorded video performance for the opening of the new parliamentary session in October 2021. It was broadcast in the chamber to an audience of dignitaries including, among others, The Queen. Singh Vig was impossible to miss, sat at the centre of the ensemble in a bright red turban and denim jacket. ‘The Queen is watching me,’ he remembers thinking. ‘I cannae believe it.’

‘They’re all massive divas at the end of the day,’ jokes MacAlinden of Musicians In Exile: ‘They can’t wait to show off.’

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