Rohingya Refugees Create Music To Memorialize Culture For Future Generations Years before Myanmar's crackdown on Rohingyas, authorities were trying to silence them. Refugees in southern Bangladesh's sprawling camps are now making music to commemorate their culture.

Rohingya Refugees Create Music To Memorialize Culture For Future Generations

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More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violence at the hands of security forces in Myanmar - that's in the last year alone. Today, nearly a million of them live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, where, as NPR's Sasha Ingber reports, they're using traditional music to document atrocities and hold on to who they are.

SASHA INGBER, BYLINE: Inside a dim mud house a 40-minute bus ride from Thangkali refugee camp, Mohammed Taker takes his instruments off a shelf. The 35-year-old keeps his mandolin and harmonium stashed here, coming in the morning and going back to the refugee camp in the evening.

MOHAMMED TAKER: (Through interpreter) If the government finds out that I'm singing songs, they will find me.

INGBER: He's worried that if he plays music in the camp, informants from Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - will send word to the government.

TAKER: (Through interpreter) We have people in our community who are friends with the Burmese government, and maybe they will sell them information. It's possible to find me because I'm one of only a few musicians. (Playing mandolin).

INGBER: He plays a song about how the Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh and how they used to have their own land back in Myanmar.

TAKER: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

INGBER: The Rohingya call such songs taranas. And they aren't about melody or phrasing. For a group that's largely illiterate, taranas are an important way of keeping historical, if ephemeral, records. Even back home in Myanmar, Taker says, it was hard, even dangerous to make music. Authorities wanted to keep the Rohingya community quiet.

TAKER: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

INGBER: Another singer and mandolin player, Amir Hussein, recounts what happened when he and his friends played music without getting permission.

AMIR HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) They came and arrested us that night. And one guy tried to run away. Then they dragged him on the ground and kicked him with their boots.

INGBER: Hussein says his family paid a fine, and he was released from jail the next day. After that, he started to make music secretly in Myanmar.

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) We needed to do it secretly because through these songs, we spoke about facts. Most of the time, they would either put us in jail or fine us some big amount of money. We did not have money. We are poor.

INGBER: He wanted to show the dignity of his people, so Hussein made a song called "Proof Of Rohingya," a musical inventory of prominent Rohingya men - a politician, a police officer, a community leader.

HUSSEIN: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

INGBER: The songs give him a place to put his sorrows.

HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) When I sing songs or play music, the soreness I have, the unhappiness I have in my body, it goes away.

INGBER: Hussein shares a mandolin with his friend, Ali Akbar, who made the instrument in the refugee camp and painted it pink because he liked the color. Akbar says he had to leave his own mandolin behind when he fled Myanmar.

ALI AKBAR: (Through interpreter) The previous one played well. I used to love to play it.

INGBER: Akbar has been playing for nearly 30 years. He got so good that, for a time, his neighbors in Buddhist and Hindu villages nearby would call him to perform Jatra - or open theatre. But that didn't mean that he, as a Muslim minority, was accepted.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) They always used to call me blackie. I would have felt proud if they called me Rohingya.

INGBER: Years before the violent crackdown of 2017, bullying, restricted movement and poverty stopped Akbar and other Rohingya from ever going to school.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) We could not study. That's why I feel quite lost. I don't know what to say to God.

INGBER: And so he remembers the injustices through his music.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) That's why I learned how to play this instrument. (Playing mandolin).

INGBER: There was the night he was attacked in his village by men he had never seen before.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) They came holding bamboos with blades on the tip and stabbed me on the back. Then I lost consciousness.

INGBER: There were the heads of children he found when he fled his village in 2017.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) And the people who were crippled, who were too slow or weak to run away, they had to die inside the houses. They burned them alive.

INGBER: He wanted to pay tribute to them in song.

AKBAR: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

INGBER: Today in Kutupalong, what has become the world's largest refugee camp, he plays music for aid organizations and teaches younger people how to make their own taranas.

AKBAR: (Through interpreter) So that when we are old and gone, the next generation, our kids, our grandkids, they can hear this music and get a sense of what kind of suffering we have been through. We are still suffering, just to share these emotions.

INGBER: Sasha Ingber, NPR News.

AKBAR: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

SIMON: Reporting for this project was supported by Music in Exile and the Pulitzer Center.

AKBAR: (Singing in foreign language, playing mandolin).

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