TOBIAS BEN JACOB – Refuge (own label)

RefugeOne half of Jacob and Drinkwater, produced by John Elliot Refuge is very much a solo affair and a departure from their sound as a duo with what he describes as “electronica-tinged story-songs inspired by people at the heart of the global refugee crisis”, variously given life from his song ‘There’s A Shadow On The Sun’ that dealt with the conflict in Syria, Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow and the work of Zekria Farzad, ‘the librarian of Moria’.

It opens in stunning form with the background, almost churchlike wheezing organ drone, clockwork percussion, field recordings, effects and Eastern sitar-like notes of ‘Bird Made Out Of Clay’, which tells of seeking better life across the sea and how a simple act of kindness (a stranger giving their daughter a clay bird) “can brighten up your day”.

Turning to fingerpicked acoustic guitar, part sung in Spanish and with distant whistling, ‘The Caravan’ shifts the scene to Honduras, specifically the capital of San Pedro Sula, for another refugee leaving their home and hardships to travel “a thousand miles of burning road”, heading for America but eventually settling in Saltillo in the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, finding kindness and work and asylum lawyers who work for free, poignantly dreaming of home and family left behind.

‘Reconciled’ was written for The Foundation of Relief & Reconciliation in Iraq, an organisation that works with persecuted minorities, the scratchy track musically evocative of Sting’s atmospheric early work with the Police as he sings “I’m not your enemy, my faith I followed peacefully/Now in the rubble and the dust I don’t know who to trust/Are my people free to live with grace and dignity?”, the crackle and buzz of effects in the background to the closing note of defiant resilience (“A rainbow in a broken sky, a seed is buried yet it does not die”).

Opening with street noise giving way to simple keyboard notes, electronics are employed to striking effect on ‘Don’t See Much Football Anymore’, a song of a Syrian father, another figure forced from their home by war (“It came down to leave or die and Russian warplanes in the sky”), that echoes the if you cut us do we not bleed sentiment in the lines “My children bleed like yours when they fall/I still wipe their runny noses after all” and “Look I also shed a tear when our dog died, when Ommal Aleppo beat our side”, and, heading for Berlin, placing dubious faith that “We’ll be safe once we reach those lights/They will honour our human rights”.

Following ‘Ether’, an ambient collage of sampled voices, comes the pulsing, pizzicato rhythm of ‘Roya’, a haunting Peter Gabriel-shaded song born from a post by Farzad marking the anniversary of his arrival at Lesvos and how, en route, the ten-year-old Afghan girl of the title was lost to the waves, her mother calling out her name. It’s followed, appropriately and effectively, by the industrial tribal shanty clank of ‘One Grey Morning’ calling out for a rescue ship to take the narrator to the mainland.

Taking its title and inspiration from the Ai Weiwei, documentary, with its pulsing sonic ebb and flow, ‘Human Flow’, again highlighting the refugees’ rock and a hard place dark of night the soul choice between an uncertain present and an uncertain future. Introduced by the sounds of literal waves and one of the more directly traditional folk sounding numbers (albeit with an undulating Eastern undercurrent as it bids “Saalam, saalam weary refugee”), the album embraces positivity with ‘Wave Of Hope’ that comes with a female choir chorus adding emotional heft.

It ends with two further powerful numbers. First is ‘White Tulips’, a simple lyric as, to pulsing drone and what sounds like the tinkle of goat bells, a Syrian widow remembers days in the garden in Kabul with her husband, and, finally, etched over tentative piano notes and capturing the heartbreak of the refugee experience, ‘I Never Wanted To Leave My Home’.

While coming from different musical spectrums, Refuge is a perfect companion piece to Diana Jones’s Refugee, two of the most important and compassionate albums of the year.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Human Flow’ – lyric video:

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