‘This choir is incredible – they’re so brave and open to everything’

When coming from such distant lands, it can be hard to find a common language. But a new choir has found the solution in music.

'This choir is incredible - they're so brave and open to everything'
The Friheten Choir. Photo: Private.

It’s a common method used in language classes: listening to songs, and then talking about the lyrics and meanings – a cultural as well as linguistic lesson.

But music teacher Hanna Mattebo has taken the concept a bit further and not only are her Swedish language students discussing the music, they’re also now also performing it.

Mattebo has been conducting a choir made up of asylum seekers and Swedish school-age teens since last year, merging the groups to perform together in local concerts and blending their voices as well as their varied backgrounds.

She tells The Local that at first she had started working with residents of the Björnforsen and Gideåbruk asylum centres, spending a couple hours using music as part of teaching Swedish.

They started with simple traditional children’s songs, discussing not only the lyrics but also the musical theory behind the tunes.

To Mattebo’s surprise, the kids’ songs started to catch on outside the classroom.

“I found out that people were getting really interested in learning and singing the songs,” she tells The Local. “Some guys took it very seriously and they started to practice a lot on their own and learn the songs really fast.”

From classroom to centre stage

The Friheten Choir. Photo: Private.

The group started out singing songs like Björnen sover (The bear is sleeping) and En sockerbagare (The pastry chef) and organized a small concert at an asylum camp.

Though the students from the asylum centre had mostly never had singing lessons, let alone performed before, they were eager to start doing shows outside of the centres and sing more complex songs.

Soon Mattebo decided to turn this enthusiasm into something more than a language lesson, and she founded a choir merged with the students at the school where she teaches music.

“I thought it was very brave since they had never sung in front of people in their lives,” Mattebo explains.

The Syrian choir members include a hairdresser, an aspiring engineer and a scuba diver – 27-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim from Daraa who now works with the coast guard in Örnsköldsvik.

But though their life experiences are very different from those of the Swedish students, they say they have bonded with their fellow musicians.

“We feel like the experience is really great and very important to us,” wrote Ibrahim and other Syrian singers in a statement to The Local.

“The feeling of ‘a bunch of refugees’ has faded away. We are all together, side-by-side and understand each other.”

Their backgrounds have also played a part in deciding the music for the performances. One of the songs they sing, Tänk dig (Imagine) by Darin, is about wishing for a world without borders and fences, without conflicts and walls, Mattebo explains. It imagines a place where people don’t judge one another.

Another song, Ringar på vattnet (Ripples in the water) by Kedjan, is about how one person taking the first step to do something has a resonating effect that can influence others to make change.

The group even performs a song by Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber, called Pray, which Mattebo says reflects how refugees have seen “people suffering, children starving and innocent people dying” but still want to pray amid the hopelessness.

“It hurts me so much when I think about them and what they’ve been through, and they still keep waiting and waiting [for their asylum decisions],” Mattebo says. “I cry a lot when we talk about that or when it crosses my mind.”

'Hope for the future'

Together with the music school students, the choir has now given three concerts, one of which included another choral group of 20 adult amateur singers. And they have more gigs lined up for the summer.

“With these guys, we have become a really intimate group of friends, and I love when we go for concerts, or hang out spending many hours together – we sing, laugh and enjoy life. They make me so happy,” Mattebo gushes.

“Above all, these guys in the Friheten Choir make me so proud. They are incredible, so brave and open to everything. They have absolutely changed me, for the better.”

And for the Syrian singers, Mattebo and the choir have become much bigger than the original teaching exercise.

“These moments give us much hope for the future, and we feel great love from the choir members and every audience we meet,” they wrote in the statement.

“Hanna is not only a teacher, for us she’s a really good friend with a big heart.”

“By singing with Swedes,” adds Ibrahim, “It feels like we are showing our appreciation to Sweden – and by going to new places and meeting people, we learn the language and understand the society better.”

Hanna Mattebo. Photo: Private

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”