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In Singapore, a Migrant Worker Band that Jams

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

It is almost five o'clock on a Sunday on the second floor of a shophouse in Little India. A few Indonesian ladies are rounding up their sewing class and packing up their sewing machines. They are making way for the next event: the Migrants Band Singapore's weekly jam. Its leader, 27-year-old Nil Sagar Shahin, waits by the stairwell. He squats over his accordion and tells us that it's considered a traditional musical instrument back home in Bangladesh. 

This is his weekly routine. Shahin has been living in Singapore for the past three years, working as a construction worker. He works seven days a week, but leaves the construction site a couple of hours early on Sundays to make it for, what he calls, band practice. 

"More people will come at six o'clock," Shahin reassures me, as he begins unlocking steel cabinets and setting up keyboards, micrphones and drum pads. "We get salary today, so a lot of people send money home first and then come here."

Felicia Yap

Another few minutes pass and another founding member of the band, Almas from Tangail, Bangladesh hurriedly walks in. When asked about his day, he chirps, "I am staying at Jurong, Jalan Papan. Every day at 6:30 AM, I wake up, refresh myself, go to the bus stop, wait for the bus to bring me to the worksite. Have to reach at eight o'clock, same on Sundays. On Sundays, I work until five o'clock, and then come here."

Sunday evenings are, perhaps, the only slice of free time these men have. But rather than resting, they spend two hours travelling to and from Little India to jam for a few hours. 

To them, jamming is more than mere songs and merrymaking. Music is almost a raison d'etre and source of strength to these men. "We all work every day in the daytime. So we feel very tired. I think about my family, my father, mother and I feel pain in my heart... so I come here to play music and sing," Almas confides before gesturing at Shahin, "In one day maybe minimum six, seven hours he will be thinking about [the band]." To which Shahin responds, "I think more." 

The music they play are projections of their yearning for home. "We do Bangla folk songs. We come from another country and we miss our country," Shahin explains. "Our music very loud because sad music is loud." 

Felicia Yap

By now, the rest of the band and audience members have turned up. Without warning, Shahin strikes a chord on the keyboard and everyone stops their respective conversations to chime in for, as I was later informed, a song called, “Will you allow me, or not, to love.” 

The Migrants Band Singapore consists of Shahin as keyboardist, Almas and Julfikan as singers, Kamrul as accordion player, 27-year-old Tazek on the electric drums, 38-year-old Robi as flautist, and Uzzal and Rahman on the traditional Indian drums.

Many of the members were trained in music in Bangladesh. Shahin, who has been playing music more over a decade, has implemented a system, which sees newer members attached to more senior members to learn a particular instrument of interest. It's come to a point where members are somewhat interchangeable, with many members able to play more than one instrument. 

Felicia Yap

Interestingly, the Migrants Band Singapore's members aren't colleagues or dormitory house mates. They came together in 2015, something that happened very organically, according to Shahin. He was introduced to the guitarist, singer, and other eventual members of the band through different friends. They got together and stayed together through their mutual love for music. All their equipment and instruments were purchased with their own savings. "Yes, our own money... These things are from the U.S., this and this," Shahin points to the electronic keyboard, drum pads and the traditional Indian drums.

These days, Shahin uses social media to recruit band members and to spread the name of the band. Their social media presence has also bagged them several gigs. 

Till date, they've played a few performances such as an event organised by the Bangladesh High Commission in 2015 and to an audience in a worker's dormitory in Tuas. "We also did programmes at the Esplanade, National University [and] National Library," Shahin proudly adds.

Felicia Yap

The band, by all appearances, seems to be headed for success. But it was brought to where it is today by sheer determination and dedication — very little external help or support whatsoever. According to Shahin, the companies that employ them are averse to their employees engaging in after hours activities, be it benign or not. “Because company don’t allow anything. Company thinks [they] don’t need headaches."

Prior to securing their jamming space in the shophouse in Little India (a space that was provided by advocacy group, Transient Workers Count Too), Shahin went through lengths to find an affordable and welcoming space for the band to jam in. The natural options that came to mind were the dormitories that they live in. “I asked the dormitory manager. I told them about our programme. We just needed a space. Everything else [sound system, instrument, microphone], we have,” Shahin adds. But some dormitories rejected them, citing potential squabbles with other tenants and workers. Other dormitories that allowed them to jam on weekends and public holidays asked for money, a price that Shahin couldn’t afford.

All those things aside, a bigger question looms — the future of the band. Shahin has one year left on his work permit. All the other members, too, are but transient workers, and will eventually leave. “Actually, we are in Singapore only [with] work permits… We stay here [for] two years or three years,” Shahin considers. To him, there are many talented musicians amongst the migrant workers here, but with no avenues for them to polish their talents. Shahin is hoping someone will take the baton and keep this band alive. “I go back next year,” he adds. “I hope another person can take over the band."