These past two years I’ve essentially been a labour migrant, which led me to wonder how the labour migration experience finds its way in modern music.
Longing for a loved one, a lost childhood, or a distant home is a fairly common theme in music. But the relationship between the emigrant, the loved one staying behind and the specific country of destination seems to be a very interesting subgenre. The basic message: why did you leave, and what is so good about the other place?
I guess a classic example of this general message is the Algerian song Ya Rayah (The Emigrant).
This seems to be about a former emigrant who returned, who looks on while others make the same mistake.
Oh emigrant where are you going? How much time are you losing? Why is your heart so sad and why you do stay over there in misery?
Here is the version by Dahmane el Harachi – I like the trains in this clip.
Eastern Europe especially has seen massive labour migration in recent years, with the working population of entire villages leaving for Western Europe temporarily, leaving children to grow up with their grandparents.
Romania is no exception, as is evident from this striking clip. “Oh, what a hard life, how the world has changed”, Irina Loghin sings, “Many children are leaving home”.
It’s so hard when your children are working abroad, in a strange land.
The ones who are migrating obviously have little time to reflect on the experience. One example to the contrary is the delightful “What can you do? It’s America!”, a Yiddish song from the 1920ies sung by Aaron Lebedeff.
To come to America, I took great trouble.
I thought I’d become a rabbi and grow myself a beard.
I had two beautiful side curls, like every religious Jew.
But in the end I had no beard and my curls were also gone.
Here in America everything’s upside down.
The men shave their hair and their wives grow beards
This song nicely reflects the occasional exasperation the emigrant feels about his new home.
Now this song is about a specific country, the United States, and this is where it gets interesting. Especially on the Balkans, there seems to be subgenre of songs in which the one that stays behind curses the destination of the labour migrant.
Here is an early exemple of the general idea: Anathema Se Ksenitia (Damn You, Foreign Lands, or for Dutch readers, Klotebuitenland) from the Epiros region in northern Greece.
I’m copypasting the translation from the Youtube-file:
My migrant birds, scattered across the world,
Your beautiful youth has gotten old in foreign lands.
Damn you, foreign land, you and all your villages;
Without wife and children, without parents by one’s side.
Day and night young maidens are waiting at your villages,
Who’ve yearned for years to set their eyes upon your manly selves.
Let there be weddings at the villages, let festivals get started,
Let joyful bells ring out in monasteries afar.
This sentiment seems to be echoed perfectly, now applied to a specific country, in ‘Prokleta je Amerika’ (Be Damned, America) by the Macedonian Roma Muharem Serbezovski. There is nothing political about this song from the 1980ies: apparently a son is singing about his father who left to work in the US.
“Be damned America, and the gold that glitters over there. Your image fades away and I am without a father. A friend came by and asked for you, broke out in tears.”
Much the same idea: ‘Nuk me duhet Gjermania’ (I Don’t Need Germany) by Leonora Jakupi, a song from Kosovo in Albanian, probably around 1997.
“What use is beauty and youth when you’re not with me? You went to Germany, the road straight to wealth. But I don’t need Germany, I don’t need wealth, I need love, I need you”
Somewhat less damning: ‘Stis fabrikis tis Germanias’ (In German Factories), in which Kazantzidis laments the fact that “our dearest children” are working all over the world, while their mothers are left weeping at home.
Kazantzidis also has a song about a labour migrant bemoaning his fate in a train en route to Germany.
Germany once more, this time in Romanian manele: ‘In Germania sunt plecat’(I Left For Germany) by Marius Babanu. “I left for Germany, but it’s so hard for me, as I left you behind.”
I was delighted to discover Suriname has similar songs. When the country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, a huge proportion of the population left for the Netherlands, a migration which was enhanced by military dictatorship and economic hardship in the 1980ies.
The song ‘Holland a no paradijs’ (The Netherlands Isn’t Paradise) by Reinforcement (I don’t know the year) urges Surinamese not to emigrate. The singer “barely managed two years” among the whites. “Get real, Holland isn’t paradise. Don’t leave Suriname to go live on the ice. The white man’s system will be your death.”
Apparently those who did leave felt the need to defend themselves. In ‘If corruptie no bon de’ Surinamese-Hindustani singer Mohammed Sharief explains that “if it weren’t for corruption, we wouldn’t have left.” Come and look for yourself, he sings: “In the Netherlands, whether we work or not, we get to eat.” Referring to Suriname’s ethnically diverse population: “Chinese and Indonesians, Indians and blacks, you all know Suriname is our country. But there is no work, and, well, you know why.”