Victor Argo
Last updated: 16 August, 2017

Come together: Sofar Beirut gives music and refugees a home

Sofar Sounds teams up with Amnesty International to shed light on the plight of refugees worldwide. We spoke to Beirut city leader Maria Antoun.

By the end of 2016, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. 

Since the 1980s until 2013, Afghanistan had been the world’s “top producer” of refugees. In 2014 Afghanistan lost this unwanted position to Syria. The other countries currently in the top five are South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia, followed by four African countries (Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea) and Myanmar.  

In terms of refugee numbers, Lebanon holds a record of its own. The country continues to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population. According to a UNHCR statistics, 1 in 6 people in Lebanon is a refugee. A similar statistics by the European Commission even gives a 1 to 4 ratio, also considering the nearly 300,000 refugees from Palestine that have found shelter in Lebanon for almost 70 years.  

“Give a home” will be a global event on September 20, 2017, where Sofar Sounds in partnership with Amnesty International will shed a light on the plight of refugees throughout the world. There will be talks by people affected by the crisis and from people trying to solve it. But mostly – as it is Sofar’s primary field of excellence – there will be musical performances, with artists and guests mingling before, between and after the various sets.  

Sofar Sounds (an acronym for Songs from a Room, which is also the title of a Leonard Cohen album from 1969) is an international network of artists, hosts and guests, curating secret, intimate gigs in unique spaces. Sofar started in London in 2009 and is now present in 350 cities around the world. Beirut is one of them.  

I met Maria Antoun, the city leader of Sofar Beirut, in Demo, a cozy, dimly lit bar in Gemmayzeh, to talk with her about the Sofar experience and the common values of Sofar and Amnesty International that will converge on September 20.

“What is your goal for Sofar Beirut?”, I asked Maria.

“I can tell you one thing,” Maria said, determined, “Sofar is magicMy goal is to make Sofar your go-to place for the perfect live music experience. I want people to leave the shows feeling inspired to bring magic to their own lives.”

Studying English Literature, Maria had hoped to become a writer in Beirut but ended up in the corporate world until she realized that she was lying to herself when giving in to the system. She applied to Sofar to become the city leader in Beirut and immediately got the ok from Sofar’s headquarters in London. Although being a city leader is unpaid, Maria quit her “daytime job” six months later to follow her passion without compromise. 

Sofar’s motto is “be still and listen” and Maria likes to enthusiastically talk about it. She is willing to take risks to get Sofar going and isn’t afraid to negotiate with the police if that’s what it takes to have a successful event (which is what happened during a recent outdoor concert deemed too loud too late by the neighbors). 

When Sofar Sounds and Amnesty International join forces in September, home will be the leitmotif. What bell does the term ring with Maria? 

“Beirut is my home,” she said, “and now imagine having to leave my city unwillingly, leaving Beirut behind for reasons outside my control, not knowing if I ever will come back. Nobody should experience being uprooted from home. Sofar is all about creating a home for music lovers, about making the world a better place. How can we do that when at the same time millions of people are stranded in foreign countries, often in poor conditions?” 

Music and politics – and the worldwide refugee crisis clearly is a political issue – have always mixed. Musicians/activists like Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti – just to name a few – have insistently conveyed a political message and observations about the society we live in together with their music. Music has been used and abused for election campaigns and military marching bands. On July 13, 1985 – the day rock and roll tried to change the world – Live Aid brought home to television screens all over the world a message that our planet is in deep trouble and people are dying at an unprecedented scale. Phil Collins performed both in London and in Philadelphia – traveling in a supersonic plane in between – and young Tracy Chapman talked about a revolution to a crowd of more than 100,000, alone on stage, with just a guitar and her voice.  

In its hugeness, and in its ambition for global reach, Live Aid also rang in an era of mega events and of music becoming an industry and a globalized phenomenon. Nowadays globalization has long lost its appeal to many, and has even become the focus of militant resistance for some. It is perfectly reflecting the Zeitgeist that the “Give a home” initiative is organized by a loose global grassroots structure of people acting locally such as Maria Antoun, people very much aware of the particularities of their respective environments.  

Not surprisingly the refugee crisis has resulted in an enormous economic and social toll for Lebanon. Xenophobia is on the rise and an online petition was recently started to demand from the United States and the United Nations to rid Lebanon of the Syrian refugees. (It must be said however that the petition so far only collected a little more than 20,000 signatures; a rather low number compared to the four million Lebanese living in Lebanon.)

“What can Sofar do for a better Lebanon?”, I asked Maria.  

“Sofar brings people together through music,” she said. “We have become so overwhelmed with social media, work and the rush of life. We need to stop and take a moment to contemplate and appreciate.” 

“And for Lebanese musicians, Sofar Beirut wants to help them to reach new audiences, locally and even internationally,” Maria added. 

“Is your ‘doing culture’ another way of ‘doing politics’?” 

Maria’s answer was very short and shaped by her Middle Eastern experience. “While politics aims to divide us,” she said, “my aim is to bring us as close as possible. That’s how far my relationship with politics goes.” 

I’m sure it goes farther. In a recent interview for the Rolling Stone magazine, country music singer Willie Nelson expressed his conviction that music has a bigger effect on people than politics and arguments. It is no coincidence, Willie Nelson said, that music is all about harmony. 

Culture with a meaningful message and a goal beyond pure fun is inherently political. “We live in a political world,” Bob Dylan sings in one of his trademark songs, “wisdom is thrown in jail, it rots in a cell, is misguided as hell, leaving no one to pick up the trail.” 

Maria Antoun and Sofar Beirut will pick up that trail on September 20, giving the good cause and open minded people a home. No one knows yet where the trail will lead not least because the location of the evening will remain undisclosed until the very last moment, result of Sofar’s policy of creating a secret.  

Wherever the location may be, go there, or go to a Sofar gig nearer to you, and be still and listen. On September 20, and in light of the global refugee crisis, being loud and taking action might be for once welcomed too.