For Sebastian Agignoae it all began with a piece of paper, slightly faded, a corner missing.
While digging through his family’s security box a few years ago, Agignoae, now a Harvard graduate student, stumbled on a document — a provisional travel certificate with his father’s name. The document revealed that Agignoae’s father fled Romania at the height of the communist regime as a refugee to Yugoslavia and eventually resettled in Des Moines. He had been persecuted for being a musician and at one point was detained by the Romanian secret police while crossing a mountain range to play music at a church. “It was like I was seeing him for the very first time,” Agignoae remembered.
After this discovery, Agignoae began reaching out to other refugee musicians like his dad, interested in finding ways to support them. In 2018, he launched an organization called the International Orchestra of Refugees (IOR), with a mission of connecting musicians who have been forced to flee their homes.
IOR is both a virtual orchestra and a kind of LinkedIn network for refugee musicians, helping them create cross-cultural ensembles and find employment. “We want to try to fill the gap in communities who are trying to better integrate refugees and be more diverse and engage them in economic growth,” Agignoae said in a recent phone interview.
According to the 2020 UN Refugee Agency report, nearly 1 percent of the world’s population is forcibly displaced outside their home country. That’s a cause for alarm, Agignoae said, when it comes to preserving the heritage of vulnerable cultures. “The largest question we want to answer is: Can we save and restore the cultures at risk of being lost?,” he said. The IOR is working with about 50 refugee musicians and partnering with organizations like the Refugee Services of Texas, Loyola University, and Jesuit Refugee Service.
One of the musician groups Agignoae works with is composed of a dozen refugees from African countries who ended up attending the Freedom Hill Community Church in Malden.
On a recent morning, band leader Patron Yemery and two other members — Prince Ntalagana and Alembe Mlongecha — were doing a sound check at The Record Co., a nonprofit recording studio in Boston. After years of playing together, the musicians were setting up for their very first professional recording, organized with the help of the IOR.
This moment would have seemed hardly feasible for Yemery and his siblings, who grew up amid civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Imitating experienced musicians from their neighborhood, they would cobble together their own instruments: a recycled can of oil with plastic strings became a guitar while empty sugar boxes and lids transformed into drums.
After the rebel occupation, the family fled to Burundi, then Tanzania and Zambia before resettling in Malden in 2005. With no English and no acquaintances, they found music could serve as a bridge to their new home.
“There is nothing like confidence for young immigrants in a place where you don’t know where to start,” said Yemery in a Zoom interview. “For me, music was the basis of everything else.”
Now Yemery’s days are full to the brim: two full-time jobs, a family, volunteer work helping out other Congolese refugees. But Saturdays are reserved for rehearsals with the band. And Sundays are for playing at two church services.
The IOR’s support has given the musicians a morale boost and some financial support. “When you want to do something a lot and have no access, you’re stuck,” said Olivia Nkwarulo, who grew up in Burundi and Tanzania and came to the US in 1999 while in her 20s. Recently she picked up extra shifts as a home nurse and hasn’t been able to make it to weekend practice. Her two sons, Joshua and Alembe, play bass, keyboard, and drums in the band. “This project is going to help us expand and reach out beyond our community,” Nkwarulo said. “That’s our goal — to reach out.”
In the weeks leading up to the recording session, the group had been rehearsing “The Refugee Anthem,” an instrumental piece composed by Syrian refugee and oud player Arian Hu for the first Refugee Olympic Team in 2016. The haunting and determined melody spoke to Yemery and his bandmates. In their own version, Ntalagana wrote the lyrics in Swahili and at the recording session, he improvised with the rhythm. “Let us unite, let us love one another, in unity we will win” the lyrics say.
So much of American popular and classical music is rooted in refugee history, says Lidiya Yankovskaya, a freelance conductor and Russian refugee. Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America,” fled tsarist Russia in the 1890s. And the great composers Kurt Weill, Béla Bartók, and Arnold Schoenberg all fled WWII and composed new work in the United States.
“This country was built on the idea of others bringing their culture and sharing that cultural wealth with others,” said Yankovskaya, who founded The Refugee Orchestra Project, also a Boston-based organization and physical orchestra that shares similar values with Agignoae’s international orchestra.
Yankovskaya’s orchestra includes musicians from Armenia, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Palestine, who frequently play alongside each other, Yankovskaya noted. During the pandemic, Yankovskaya has been raising money to commission new work by refugee artists. The way that refugees are perceived in the US is often troubling, she finds. “There is this view of the refugees as the other,” Yankovskaya said in a phone interview. “But this is a country of refugees — there is no one here who is not a refugee in one way or another.”
Taking on the additional commitments that come with partnering with the IOR has been an adjustment for Yemery’s band. Aligning schedules, coordinating transportation for everyone, and meeting deadlines can be a challenge, Yemery said. On the day of the recording at The Record Co., only three musicians made it to the session out of the nine who had committed. “Everyone’s work schedules, priorities, or needs come into play,” Yemery said. “But we will adapt and we’ll work with what we can.”
Mariya Manzhos is a freelance journalist based in Somerville. Follow her on Twitter: @mariyamanzhos.