MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Earlier, we talked about the more than a million and half Iraqi refugees who've been displaced from their homes since the latest conflict began in 2003. Now, imagine being a displaced rock 'n' roll band. No, imagine being a displaced heavy metal band trying to make a new life a new music in Syria, of all places. There is such a band. They call themselves, Acrassicauda.
Mr. FIRAS ALLATIF (Bass Guitarist, Acrassicauda): I got a phone call for today from my mom who says, never come back.
Mr. SUROOSH ALVI (Co-founder, Vice Media): Today?
Mr. ALLATIF: Yeah. (unintelligible) I was in the studio. She said never come back. Try your best and just stay there as much as possible.
Mr. ALVI: Oh, my mom.
MARTIN: That's bass guitarist Firas Allatif talking about his experience as a refugee in an online documentary series that's produced by Vice Media. Suroosh Alvi is a co-founder of Vice, and he spent the last few years filming Acrassicauda - first, as a band trying to pioneer a heavy metal scene in Baghdad, and then as the band made their way to Damascus, where they're among the more than a million Iraqis now living there.
Earlier, I spoke to Suroosh and members of the band, including Firas, as well as the drummer Marwan Riyak and lead singer Faisal Talal. Here's Suroosh telling us about the band's song, "Massacre."
(Soundbite of song "Massacre")
Mr. ALVI: The band always claims not to be a political band, and "Massacre" is the one song where they do address how war has affected their lives.
(Soundbite of song, "Massacre")
ACRASSICAUDA (Heavy Metal Band, Iraq): (Singing) Enjoy your revolution…
Mr. ALVI: They talk very explicitly about their land that's been taken from them and the fact they've been kicked out, et cetera, et cetera. These are guys who lived through so many wars. And they're in their early 20s but they act and talk like they're in their 40s, like, they evolve much faster having living through war.
(Soundbite of song, "Massacre")
ACRASSICAUDA: (Singing) (unintelligible)
Mr. ALVI: They wanted to make the guitar solo sound like a mother who lost her child - like, that kind of wailing sound. There's a fusion of Arab influence and traditional heavy metal that's been brought together, which really sums up who these guys are. And they're not trying to ape an American sound. This is their sound. This is heavy metal coming from Baghdad.
(Soundbite of song, "Massacre")
ACRASSICAUDA: (Singing) They stole my land. They stole my home. They stole my flag. They stole my home.
MARTIN: Marwan, who is they?
Mr. MARWAN RIYAK (Drummer, Acrassicauda): They. We're not pinning the fault on anyone. We've always been, like, we're totally not a political band, but like it talks about the massacre all around the world.
MARTIN: Marwan, you know, some people think of metal as inherently political just because it tends to go against the establishment, whoever the establishment is. What do you think? Do you think that's true?
Mr. RIYAK: I think that's true, because, like, metal presents facts and nothing but facts. And, like politics is one of these, like, miserable facts that we need to deal with every single day of our lives.
MARTIN: Why did you guys ultimately decide to leave Baghdad? You're all in Damascus now. And I think you all lived individually, but why did you all decide you had to go?
Mr. ALLATIF: Okay, I can answer this question. This is Firas, the bass player. The reason why we left Baghdad to Damascus - it's basically looking for a safer place to rehearse and practice and basically spread our music and our messages. But unfortunately, we couldn't do it here, too, because we left from the Middle Eastern culture to another, like, Middle Eastern culture, which is basically pretty much the same. So we have the same rules here to go on in Syria.
MARTIN: Are you able to work as musicians there, or do you have to do other jobs to survive and support your families?
Mr. ALLATIF: Basically, we have to do another job to survive, but we can't work as a musicians because nobody gives you the chance to do that for - first of all, and no opportunities for musicians here. And plus, we can't find like regular jobs to support our families or survive, too, because we are here, kind of, like, immigrants and - plus, metal's not accepted here, you know.
MARTIN: How are you able to keep your passion for the music alive, then?
Mr. TALAL: Okay, this is Faisal. Well, here we try to rehearse in small store with a small generator that during bad times, having some good days, starting with a new music and new tunes - with new tunes. I can't tell you or promise you about having fun. But the kind of passion you're talking about is much more bigger (unintelligible) to metal.
I mean, we had, would have been raised in metal, kind of. And so far, we tried to hold it on together but, like, I guess the circumstances is way stronger than us. We tried to fight it, but I don't think that we can hold on like much longer, you know. Because, like, it's a community that's been build thousands of years ago that you're fighting, that you're standing against. And like, I don't think that we're up to this fight.
MARTIN: Suroosh, what are you hearing? It sounds like the guys are getting discouraged.
Mr. ALVI: Yeah. Well, hope is definitely dwindling. You know, they're essentially in a purgatory now. The money's run out, and they've had to sell their equipments and life as a heavy metal refugee seems very, very difficult. And…
MARTIN: So you did a film about the band? What's the status of that?
Mr. ALVI: Well, we just - on VBS, we have the trilogy up there, the first part of it is "The Baghdad Generals," the story about going there. And the second part is the "Black Scorpion Baghdad," which is more of the interviews with the band. The third part is "Heavy Metal Refugees," which is - and that's, you know, an hour and 45 minutes of content that we put up.
What I really hope is that someone will see this and will be able to help Acrassicauda in the situation that they're in. Because we're hitting a wall now, and it's become Vice and VBS' humanitarian effort and cause how to get these guys out of this situation. And their biggest fears is that the Syrian government will kick them back into Iraq, and then they will face, potentially, death. And that is obviously a very scary proposition for them. So…
MARTIN: Why? Because they're a metal band, or just because the patience or the tolerance for the Iraqi refugees is wearing a bit thin in Syria?
Mr. ALVI: Yeah. It has nothing to do with metal at this point. I think, yeah, there's, you know, 1.2 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria now, and the Syrian government can't really take many more of them. And I think the current Iraqi government has started to do a deal the Syrians to get the Iraqis back in.
And if they go back, then, whether they're playing metal or not, it's just so dangerous there, you know. The - you can ask the guys themselves. They've lost friends and family who are still in Baghdad, and their families that are in Baghdad are saying do not ever come back here.
MARTIN: Yeah, that's a…
Mr. ALVI: So we're trying to get them into Sweden or Germany or Canada. Obviously, America's not happening. America's accepted 500 Iraqis thus far, which is ridiculous, considering that because of their occupation, 2 million Iraqis have been forced to leave.
So they need help, we need help. So hopefully someone will hear this or see the movie and say, oh, I have an idea. I know how to get these guys out.
MARTIN: Marwan or Faisal, given all that you're up against, why is it worth it to keep playing?
Mr. TALAL: It's a faith. It's a passion. It's just life for us. It's a dream of life coming true every single day, every time, every second we rehearse. It's going, like, through our veins and blood. I think, like, we're bringing people together in this matter, because, like, politics separate people. But the music, it's all about facts, it's bringing people together, make people see reality. And we are insist on, like, doing that and finish it to the end. Because it like it's us, it's who we are. We are musicians. We are Acrassicauda.
MARTIN: Acrassicauda, on the phone from Damascus. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Mr. TALAL: I appreciate it, ma'am.
MARTIN: Suroosh, last question for you. There are many pressing needs, obviously, in Iraq right now, and many people are concerned about the situation there, many people facing dire circumstances. How do you argue that people should spend their energy, resources and time on musicians? Given that there are a number of people who've, for example, worked for American Forces in Iraq who were in great danger because of the work that they've done, how do you make that argument?
Mr. ALVI: Well, I think for us, these are the people that we met and that we have a relationship with. And I think that they - being a band, they can carry the message and can I have a big audience. And what's happened in the case of Acrassicauda is that a lot more people - our audience, the people who only read Vice magazine, are thinking about the war now and getting a different perspective about it than what they would get from CNN. So if they come out and they can play concerts, you know, people will come out and (unintelligible).
I'm not saying - I would never say that the translators who worked for the American troops, who now are living in jeopardy of being killed shouldn't be helped as well. I think everyone should be helped. In our particular case, these are the guys that we're choosing to help specifically.
MARTIN: Suroosh Alvi is co-founder a Vice magazine. He is also an executive producer of VBS.TV. He joined us from our New York bureau. Soroosh, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. ALVI: Thank you, Michel.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Acrassicauda, by the way, is the name of a black scorpion that is native to Iraq. And for a link to watch "Heavy Metal Refugees," the final installment in the documentary series about the band, visit us online at npr.org/tellmemore.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.