More than just migrant workers
Members of the Banglar Kantha-Dibashram cultural group meeting before the COVID-19 pandemic to play music together. (Photo: Mish’aal Nasar)

More than just migrant workers

Mention “migrant workers” in this time and what might come to one’s mind is the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore. A group of artists, however, hopes to change this.

Musicians Cheryl Ong, Dharma Shan, Yuen Chee Wai and filmmaker Eric Lee have been releasing a series of five videos online to show a lesser known side of migrant workers – their other lives as talented and passionate musicians. The aim: to help people regard the migrant worker community not as digits or the “other,” but as individuals who are part of our society, who share similar passions, and who contribute in diverse ways to our city and music landscape.

The migrant workers in the short videos hail from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. By day, they work in fields as varied as construction, manufacturing and audio-visual services. On weekends, however – before the pandemic – they would form bands, make music and perform at social gatherings and religious celebrations.

These musicians range from enthusiasts to professional-level performers. Indeed, some of them are so well-established that locals hire them as private music tutors. Visiting arts groups are also known to invite them to perform at concerts here.

The videos were originally shot – last year and early this year – for the film and music performance, Source x Audible Lands. The work, conceived by Lee and the three members of homegrown band The Observatory, was meant to make its premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts this year. The performance would have comprised a film screening and a live concert by the musicians in the film, as well as The Observatory.

Plans for Source x Audible Lands, however, were foiled by the pandemic; the Festival had to be postponed. But the trio was keen to release snippets of the film and offer a glimpse of their incomplete work via the Festival website.

Shan says: “We hope this presentation, at this time, will help in some ways to mitigate the negative comments from netizens about the migrant worker community. We hope people will see migrant workers as cultured, as having talent, and a part of our community.”

Construction worker Sumon Mobarak, who is a musician with the Banglar Kantha-Dibashram cultural group, and in one of the videos, says he is happy to have been part of the project. “It captures our culture and we share it, so people are interested; this is very nice.”

Lee, who found the musicians through word-of-mouth and by spending time at places popular with migrant communities, such as Golden Mile Complex, says he continues to call and check-in on the musicians to make sure they are keeping well.

The trio of artists intends to further develop the work and they hope to be able to share the musicians’ stories and talents on stage one day. Shan says: “They inspire me as a musician because although they work tiring jobs, they somehow make time to pursue music, and they do it with so much energy, no matter the audience. They keep doing it because it means something to them.”

Ong adds: “I realised we share similarities – we find the same type of happiness playing music. But we are more privileged, and in this time, I hope the videos will raise awareness of the community and get people thinking about how they can help migrant workers in their own way.”

Watch the Source x Audible Lands videos here.

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