Music for Refugees with Betsy Blakeslee

Picture of Betsy Blakeslee, woman with grey hair smiling in front of a house

Picture of Betsy Blakeslee, woman with grey hair smiling in front of a house

Betsy Blakeslee’s work has connected refugees with the healing power of music for two decades. She first found her passion for directing choruses in 6th grade and her work bringing people and music together continues to grow.

Betsy’s work sits at the helm of three projects – World Harmony Chorus – Oakland, California, Expressive Arts Refuge, and VerbQ. She directed expressive arts programs for refugee youth in Bosnia and Croatia during the wars of the 1990s. Since 2016, her Expressive Arts Refuge team and Moira Smiley have been running similar programs at refugee camps in France, Greece, and Lebanon.

Betsy Blakeslee is the co-author on forthcoming book about the Calais Jungle refugee camp.

To listen to this episode as a podcast, search for Agile Vocalist anywhere you get your podcasts.

Refugees Coming to France

By using music and body percussion as expressive art, she’s witnessed healing and the re-shaping of trauma for refugees. In this episode, we discuss her experiences in the Jungle in Calais, France and the transformations she has witnessed when you give refugees just a little bit of stability in their lives.

Body Music and Sound Helping Re-Shape Refugee Experiences

We also dive into the brain science of entraining, the transformations body music can evoke, and the connective, oxytocin-producing power that gets evoked when humans are make music together (you’ve felt it too if you’ve ever been to a concert where the fans are singing together).

In this episode you’ll hear:

  • Stories about Sudanese and Syrian children and teens in refugee camps and their enthusiastic participation in fine and performing arts.
  • How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not rigid; a little bit of shelter, food and stability opens the way for the arts to come in and shift refugee experiences.
  • What expressive arts is and how it can transform someone’s life.
  • Betsy’s work in Calais, France and in the Jungle working with Moira Smiley and a volunteer team to help refugees.
  • A demo of what Betsy does. I had Betsy take me through learning a song and body music choreography that she teaches to refugees to make sound a whole-body experience that activates the brain.
  • A before and after story of a young man Betsy worked with as a refugee now living in England and on course to a more stable life.
  • A perspective on what it means to be a white western volunteer coming in to “help.”
  • How entraining works among people making music together.
  • Why music happens while we are peaceful and seeking harmony but not while we are being violent. How it creates unity among people being together.

Liner Notes graphic

Also mentioned in this episode:

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Betsy: They were drawing the soldiers who came and attacked their village from the back of pickup trucks. We would look at those pictures and they would proudly show us how they were, in a way, expressing their journey through art. We would then toggle with them between the artistic expression through colored pencils at one table and three feet away, standing, singing some songs from their country or other countries and some body music. They got to have choices and how they expressed the point of life that that moment was for them, that moment where we entered it. We are team.

Host: Welcome. Listen to this next Agile Vocalist podcast.


Rachel: Betsy Blakeslee sits at the helm of three projects, World Harmony Chorus in Oakland, California, Expressive Arts Refuge, and VerbQ. Her choruses have performed at the State of the World Forum, UN Millennium Summit, New York, the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California, and at Benefit Concerts throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work with refugees spends two decades. She directed Expressive Arts programs for refugee youth in Bosnia and Croatia during the wars of the 1990s.

Since 2016, her Expressive Arts Refuge team and Moira Smiley have been running similar programs at refugee camps in France, Greece, and Lebanon. Betsy Blakeslee is the co-author on a forthcoming book about the Calais Jungle Refugee Camp. Welcome, Betsy, thank you for being here.

Betsy: Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: I’d love it if you would start talking about how you got your roots. How did you get your roots in conducting and singing and when, in your life, did you know that music would be your chosen career?

Betsy: I was a clueless child. I had no idea who I was, what my strengths were. I only knew later when I looked back and I saw what other people recognized in me. When you ask this question, I think when I was eight, I was on television on a program called Fun to Learn Music. That was a children’s music program for a year. I was only one of four children who were selected to be on it, but I just thought every kid went to the TV station after school. That’s how clueless I was.

We didn’t have a TV, so I never saw myself on TV. It wasn’t a time when the visual and the desire for celebrity was really so prominent in the minds of the kids. I would have to say that somebody recognized musicality and maybe, probably, my piano teacher at that point but also music was part of the schools then, and so we were able to do that. My grammar school had an upright piano.

I would always sit down when I get to school early and the kids would come play with me and I may have got duets or we would have certain duets we play together. Then in junior high, by then I had taken up the clarinet, and I became first year clarinet which makes you a concert mistress in a band. Maybe not in an orchestra, maybe violin. I got to conduct when I was in sixth grade-

Rachel: Oh.

Betsy: -seventh grade, eighth grade. My mom made me a blue dress with ribbons down the back because the audience would be seeing me from the back. I wasn’t at all visual, really. I was just an audio kid. I was totally interested in how that long score– How do you find all the parts for all the instruments on the score because there’s a lot of parts ….and you have to read them all at once –or let your eyes toggle between them. That was so fun for me to be able to feel music in my body as a kid and conducting was the first way I got to do that besides playing instruments and singing.

Rachel: Was your piano teacher– Your parents, I would assume, had something to say in getting you to the piano teacher?

Betsy: Yes, and probably my grandmother who was a music major at Vassar. She had a piano, but both of my parents weren’t terribly musical.

Rachel: Oh, I see.

Betsy: We did not do music as a family.

Rachel: Can you talk a little bit about the refugee experience? I’m all always fascinated, and I think a lot of people are, on a very basic level. When you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How does music fit in when you’re a refugee? What’s that experience like where it adds value and you know it’s adding value?

Betsy: It’s such a great question. As a psychology student, I thought that that pyramid was rigid, that you really had to answer all those basic needs, food, safety, shelter first before you could go on, up the pyramid to the more fun parts of life like self-expression. No. What we experienced in various refugee camps where we ran music projects was that people who had a lot of insecurity but just enough in place, just enough food, maybe they lived in a tent with two other people, a little pup tent. Clothes would be handed out from a distribution center. They didn’t always get what they wanted, but nobody was barefoot.

Rachel: Nobody was– Yes.

Betsy: Everybody pretty much had a blanket but sometimes you needed two blankets. You didn’t always have a second one. Sometimes things would get stolen and it would be a day or two before you will get them. Your needs were somewhat uncertain but you were surrounded by community. That population who had a little bit of infrastructure, a little bit of safety around them in Calais Jungle France was, to some extent, open to Expressive Arts. Not everybody came to what we offered. Very few adults came, more underage kids, meaning usually teenagers.

Rachel: Teenagers.

Betsy: They were without their families. Here were these warm, lovely, grown-ups, that we had Tawfic Halaby, and his sister, Tammy, and their brother, Tarek, who were Arabic speakers.

Betsy: -particularly on the team. They were singing it warm and they always welcomed them. That’s where they wanted to be rather than just waiting in their tongue for nothing to happen.

[singing in foreign language]

Rachel: Tell us about what Expressive Arts is?

Betsy: I think that it is a way that someone can juggle, play with, puzzle out their experience through artistic expression. If they’re singing, they’re singing something about their emotional state, or their journey and that part of their journey in life. If they’re doing something with art, visual art, they’re maybe shaping something with clay that’s expressing something from the inside. They’re getting to, in a way, shape with their experience or reshape it through an expressiveness.

Meaning Expressive Arts is adding a component to experience, that is active and is so shaping so that whatever happens to a person, doesn’t have to stay in a rigid state but they can rework it. Experience becomes more pliable for the arts people, and who they become, becomes more pliable. It becomes something like clay in their hands.

Rachel: Wow. My brain gets running wild with that answer. I love it. That’s–

Betsy: I’ve had the experience many times, personally and professionally, of watching and experience get transmitted through music or seeing music really transform an experience or artistically. For example, I started as little nonprofit called Expressive Arts Refuge. I gathered a team of educators, musicians, and Arabic speakers, and we went off to refugee camps and ran music programs. One of the first ones we did was in Calais Jungle in France. There was a group of Sudanese boys, who were sitting in a hut, just four walls of plywood, not much a few plastic chairs and they were drawing with colored pencils their journey from Sudan. They were drawing the soldiers-

Rachel: Oh.

Betsy: -on horseback. They were drawing the soldiers who came and attacked their village from the back of pickup trucks. Then we would look at those pictures and they would proudly show us how they were, in a way, expressing their journey through art and we would then toggle with them between the artistic expression through colored pencils at one table and three feet away, dancing, singing some songs from their country or other countries, and some body music. They got to have choices in how they expressed-

Rachel: Expressed.

Betsy: –the point of life that that moment was for them. That moment where we entered it, “We Are Team” and they, who had become refugees fairly recently and were in Europe for the first time trying to figure out how do White people behave? What happens in this culture? How does this language sound? We were like some of their first experience with Westerners. We wanted to allow plenty of space for them to express themselves.

Rachel: The jungle is not for the listeners here? The jungle is not an actual jungle? Could you just give a little summary of it.

Betsy: Yes.

Betsy: Anyone who was at the refugee camp in northern France called Calais Jungle, called it Calais Jungle in a jungle, but that’s actually taken from an Afghan word in Pashto meaning the woods. It’s actually a jungle. Is that they spelled it D-J-A-N-G-

Rachel: Oh, interesting.

Betsy: -something like that and the Western volunteers who were there, heard it as “jungle.”

Rachel: Oh.

Betsy: And it stuck.

Rachel: Oh my gosh.

Betsy: People use that term with varying feeling tones. The local Calasians said it with disdain and scoffing and the volunteers said it with nostalgia because they had some of their most wonderful experiences there.

Rachel: What was the, I forget what year it was, what was the theatre company that did the show about Calais here in the Bay Area.

Betsy: There were actually two different theatre projects. The one that most of the listeners here probably know about is one by two theatre people from England, who we called Joe and Joe, who erected a big geodesic dome in the Jungle and passed the mic around and let people express themselves and they did some theater workshops and expressing their journey, then people shared. There was this kind of homegrown theater project in the Jungle, out of which grew the show that traveled around the world.

Betsy: That was the theater. There was a second theater project, which I was involved with, that was run by Caritas. They ran a theater workshop that was separate for refugees from a wide variety of countries who were living in Calais Jungle. They ran this workshop out of their data center in the town of Calais. It was quite close to the Calais Jungle, which is on the outskirts.

Rachel: Got it.

Betsy: The refugee actors in this workshop one day surprised them by asking them, the directors and a few of the Caritas staff who were around, to please take seats and chairs-

Rachel: Oh.

Betsy: -and then they performed-

Betsy: –a piece that they had secretly made up about their journey from their countries across the Mediterranean, including people falling overboard and drowning, and making it through detention centers and being beat up and making it to France. It was so touching. They brought me in to help shape the musical component of that theater piece which was called To Be or Not, and that theater piece had a tour throughout France and it was very well received, had a very positive review.

Rachel: To simulate the refugee experience, I had Betsy teach me a Cuban song originally written in Spanish by Raul Cabrera Hernandez in camps where refugees are trying to get to England. It’s taught in English along with body percussion, choreographed footsteps, claps, body slaps, and finger snaps as you sing.

Betsy: Two, three, and go. [claps] Right-left, right-left, right-left. And on that 4th beat, we haven’t put anything yet, but what we can do is a snap or a double snap.

Betsy: Right?

Rachel: Yes.

Betsy: Yes, so here we go-

All: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Betsy: Right? [claps] Right-left, right-left, right-left, snap. Right-left, right-left, right-left, snap. Yes, yes. [claps] Right-left. Yes. Right-left, right-left, right-left, yes. Right-left, right-left, right-left. Yes. Right-left, right-left, right-left, snap. [claps] Yes.

All: [claps] Yes. [singing]

Oh, mama.

Oh, my friend.

Sit a while and sing a while until we blend.

Oh, mama.

Oh, my friend.

Sit around and sing a while until we blend.

Oh, mama.

All: Oh mama.

Oh, my friend.

Sit a while and sing a while until we blend.

Betsy: Mama, oh mama.

Oh, you’re my friend.

Sit a while and-

All: -sing a while until we blend.

Oh, mama.

Oh my friend

Sit a while and sing a while until we blend.

Rachel: Oh mama.

Oh, my friend.

Sit a while and sing a while until we blend.

Betsy: Nice. That was great.

Rachel: [laughs]

Betsy: That was great. You picked that up fast. Yes.

Rachel: [chuckles] You’ve had what I think you would call or categorize a blessing of being able to do this work in multiple places around the world with different kinds of populations, adults, children. Can you tell us a before and after story that you’ve experienced?

Betsy: Sure. There was one boy, we’ll call him Mohammed, from Sudan. He was one of the boys who probably showed us his picture of the John Dewey soldiers arriving with the rifles. He was without family in France, had made a very long journey from Sudan, through Northern Africa across the boat, through all those southern European countries, and made it all the way to the north of France, right into the border of the English Channel. It’s a very long journey for a 17-year-old. Probably 16 when he started, 17 when we met him.

He had, what I would say was a typical kind of neurological jangling that comes from trauma. You could see in him and in many of the refugees, a slightly asymmetrical, slightly less coordinated way of his body moving and reacting. It was tiny, we’re not talking duress, but why we teach a little simple Adi music rhythm, and just to get the feet going left, right, left, right.

Rachel: Left, right.

Betsy: It was very hard for him to do that, but we taught him songs over the course of the summer, we bonded, we had a lot of sweet times together, we did some performances, including the kids, gave them the stage, they were so proud of themselves. Our stage was a modified horse trailer. They sang at the top of the ramp.


Betsy: We had a single microphone, and a Bluetooth setup with a phone, and so on. Anyway, he loved certain songs, never really mastered them, but he had fun singing them. You could see his pure joy when he performed and then he tried, again and again, to sneak onto a truck and stowaway to get across the English Channel to get to England, which is where he wanted to be and where he would be able eventually to start school and so on. He finally made it after many months of trying and disappointments and difficulties.

One day, I was on a video call with him. He’d made it to England and he was in a little apartment. He had a sponsor. It was just around Halloween. There was a jackal lantern on the kitchen table. I felt like he was finally in good hands.

Rachel: How old was he?

Betsy: 17.

Rachel: 17 still? All right.

Betsy: By this time, Calais Jungle had been demolished.

Rachel: Demolished.

Betsy: We had gotten out just in time. Otherwise, he would have been a kid on the street and he was now in England. You could see he was sad. He felt displaced, his face was a little long. He started, in our video call with his limited English, singing one of the songs that we had sung together. As I was singing it with him, and then his hand just touched the screen, and my hand also touched the screen.

Rachel: Wow.

Betsy: It was like he was allowing us to connect through this MO of singing together through the screens many thousands of miles apart. Then he asked me to send him a clip of Maura Smiley who is part of our team, who had taught him Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie, and I sent him that and he was singing along with it. I pulled up Nina Simone’s version of I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free, which he loved.

Rachel: Oh, yes.

Betsy: We were singing along with it and share dancing in front of the screens. There was some sense of continuity, how the way we had connected through music with very little common language allowed us to continue the connection and we’re still in touch today.

Rachel: If he’s 17, is he allowed to work, or how does he participate?

Betsy: By now, he’s 21.

Rachel: Oh, now, he’s 21? Okay.

Betsy: Yes, he had a little school. He’s now working in construction so he’s able to bring in some income, he’s developing a little bit of community. He was on a sports team. I’m not saying it’s an easy life-

Rachel: No.

Betsy: -but it was softened a little by many kind people along the way including our team. [claps]

[singing:  Moira Smiley, Bring Me Little Water, Silvy.]

[humming by multiple singers leading to notes and 4 part harmony]

Bring me little water, Silvy

Bring me little water, now

Bring me little water, Silvy

Every little once in a while.


Bring it in a bucket, Silvy.

Bringing in a bucket, now.

Bring it in a bucket, Silvy.


Every little once in a while.


Silvy come a running

Bucket in my hand

I will bring a little water

Fast as I can.


Bring me little water, Silvy

Bring me little water, now

[splashing sounds]

Just a little bit

Bring me little water, Silvy

Every little once in a while


Can’t you see me coming

Can’t you see me now

I will bring a little water

Every little once in a while

Humming, Clapping and Splashing

Bird sounds

Every little once in a while

Every little once in a while

Every little once in a while

Rachel: You’ve worked with both children and adults as refugees in camps and in settings. Do you see a difference in how the children engage with you and what you’re doing versus the adults, and how they connect with what you’re there to offer?

Betsy: Yes. I saw a huge difference in children who ha been in school before and children, for example, Syrian children who had never been in school because war has been in their country their entire childhood. Children from Syria who were seven had never been in school 7, 8, 9, 10.

Rachel: Wow.

Betsy: Their relationship to teachers wasn’t something that was familiar. They didn’t know how to behave in a class. We had to be careful, and we had to use people from their culture to help us to manage the classroom so that we could establish or co-create-

Rachel: Oh.

Betsy: -a learning environment.

Rachel: Got you.

Betsy: Once we could establish, this was a learning environment where you get to play together, but in a particular way, it’s got a little structure to it with little segments of, “We’re going to do this for a few minutes.” Then you can do a blowout time and throw your arms around, but you can’t just throw your arms around and knock into the person next to you the entire time. Then it would work. The kids who have been in school before were so thrilled

Rachel: Oh, structure.

Betsy: -to have any kind of a class-like structure that they loved it. They, like many kids, did not have an easy time organizing themselves to show up every day. I do think there’s a collision of cultures that can happen when you’re doing the kind of work we were doing in a refugee camp where Westerners are trying to lead a class for people who have more Eastern tendency as many of them were really very similar to Westerners in a lot of way and some were not, and that people also have lives which are very, very chaotic. It was very difficult and not super important for them to have regularity in certain areas that were not connected with moving their lives forward.

Rachel: This is a fun question that I ask most of my guests, almost all my guests, where do you get your creative inspirations? Do you put together a lot of music and direct a non-audition chorus for anyone who wants to come and sing and you sing music from all over the world, and you teach people, not just how to say the words, but how to sing the notes? Where do you get inspired? What do you do to tap into that creative source to find what to work on?

Betsy: I love learning from people who know more than I do, and it’s not hard to find them. As a writer, I meet people who win awards in the genre in which I write because I learn best from reading what other people have written at a very high level. Musically, I like listening to people who sing at a really high level or whose musicianship is at a high level and will expand my notion of how a particular song or phrase or phrasing or ornamentation can be done in different genres. I love genre-bending. For me, that’s a really exciting place that inspires me.

When I hear people who straddled more than one culture and are singing a song that reflects that, to me, that’s the most exciting thing. I feel like, “This is 2021. This is someone from the Middle East who’s been living in Spain and you can hear a little flamenco influence in this Arabic song they’re singing, or this is someone from the west who’s traveled a lot in Africa, and you can hear how their phrasing is becoming more African, or they have mastered the clicks that so few of us Westerners who try can’t actually do.”

Rachel: The mouth clicks.

Betsy: The mouth clicks that are part of the alphabet.

Rachel: Which part of, and I forget because it was a number of years since I sang with you, there are many songs, I’m sure you’ve taught with the mouth clicks that are part of the alphabet, what are some of the countries that use that as their kind of language?

Betsy: I forget and don’t want to say it incorrectly. Let me just say that it’s many African languages-

Rachel: Many.

Betsy: -use clicks. We use syllables and have a lot of letters in our alphabet but they use clicks. Other languages use melody. The same three letters, the same one three-letter combination can mean four, five, six, or seven different things, depending on what kind of melody you attach to it, well, we don’t have those kinds of melodic tones in our language. Where I get inspiration is from watching people who do things creatively or who do things at a higher level than I do. I love watching people-

Rachel: Watching, and listening. Right?

Betsy: -and listening. Right.

Rachel: Yes, yes.

Betsy: Listening and watching. Mostly, listening. Sometimes, I close my eyes and to listen really hard, to listen really carefully so I can hear something that’s being done in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of. I know that music can be really expressive and can take us on an emotional journey if we can learn to listen deeply to it. For example, there was a really excellent Sudanese singer in Calais Jungle Refugee Camp. I learned a lot from listening to him sing. It was partly the emotion that he brought, but also the Sudanese style of ornamentation, the quavering on the notes was so different from what we sing when we do ornaments in the west, that I learned a great deal just from listening. I felt really inspired. I could listen to him all evening.

[singing in foreign language]

Rachel: Another question is, once you get into the camps and the work you start to do, that’s musical and percussive with the refugees, what is it that you actually do with them and take them through and how do you engage them?

Betsy: The first thing we do is walk around, talk to people, listen, find out what they need and want. Find out who the musicians are. Try to pro provide platforms through the refugee musicians so that they can perform which they’ve usually not been able to do since they left home. Sometimes, there are some excellent musicians who are in refugee camps and the world is not hearing their talent. We’ve put on concerts to help provide platforms.

One of the things we do is we work with a concept called the entraining, E-N-T-R-A-I-N. Entraining means that as an individual, attune yourself to the other people who are in close proximity to you, so that there’s a group attunement that happens and a feeling of belonging and safety. When entraining is happening in a group at a high level, the body produces oxytocin which is the love hormone.

What happens when people sing together in harmony or in call and response where they have to listen closely to the person who’s doing the call because then they have to come in with their response at the right time with the other people in the room, in a refugee camp at the tent, you get a level of listening and coordination and sync that doesn’t normally happen when we are driving around in our own car, in the United States or in our own house.

It happens much more easily when there’s rhythm and music going on in that group. If you’ve ever wondered why do you feel a cohesiveness that a concert, particularly a concert where you’re asked to sing the refrain or everybody starts to sing the refrain of a song-

Rachel: Oh, yes, of course.

Betsy: -there’s the oxytocin. Everybody knows the same song.

Rachel: Sure.

Betsy: They come in together on the refrain or they’re taught a little part and they sing it. Rallies, protests can be really fun, particularly when the music starts. Why? Because people are entraining, they’ve come together in that case for a purpose that brings them together and gives them a sense of belonging. Then if you add music, you add that openheartedness. Then there’s the oxytocin that bonds people. You go away having had a really sublime-

Rachel: Experience, yes.

Betsy: -experience. Now, if you look at rallies where there’s violence, the violence, breaking windows, usually is not happening when people are singing-

Rachel: That’s true.

Betsy: -together.

Rachel: That’s true.

Betsy: Or one person creating violence can break up that feeling of safety and belonging. Entraining is a big part of it. Oxytocin is a big part of it. The musical styles I try to bring in are close enough to the styles where people come from, that they can relate to them. Also, depending on what country they’re in, they’re trying to learn the language of that country, or if they’re headed in the case of the people in France for England, we felt comfortable teaching in English because most of them wanted to learn English-

Rachel: Wanted.

Betsy: -because most were headed to England. I try to learn a lot and to incorporate the local musicians whose lives and community we’ve walked into is we want to walk in with respect-

Rachel: Of course.

Betsy: –and humility. It takes a lot of cultural humility. Body music, rhythm is another kind of entraining. When people are doing something rhythmic together, that helps the feeling of the group entrainment. When people are learning to do some clapping, stepping, slapping of the body in a particular musical pattern, that brings together a feeling of unison or unity or collectivity, that can be very healing. You can almost watch, which I like to do, for the neurological retraining or aligning that starts to happen when people begin to work with a symmetrical pattern of “left-right, left-right-

Betsy: -left-right, left-right.” After people have experienced trauma, you really want to work with the beauty of musicality in trying to reshape it. Rhythm body music is such a good way to do that. First of all, it’s fun and pleasurable because we get the oxytocin of doing it in a group, or even two people or three people doing it together. The nervous system starts to realign and balance. The things that were jangly can begin to become a little smoother. Sometimes when we were working with refugee, we would see a tick under the eye and it would go away after they were doing body music for a while.

Rachel: When you mean a while, you mean minutes, or are you talking about successive days?

Betsy: Successive days of a class, every day or most days over a period of two or three weeks where the whole neurology is beginning to shift.

Host: That was inspiring. Be sure to listen again soon.


Host: Agile Vocalist is created and produced by Rachel Medanic. Contributing editor, Ben Krueger, logo and identity design by Sasha Brent. With special thanks to my husband, Dave.


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