Behind dark sunglasses, a man in a grey suit sits cross-legged on a stage, a stringed instrument called a tambura in his lap.
He leans towards the microphone and before a crowded cafe in the hills of Perth, sings songs from the mountains of Afghanistan.
“Playing tambura, it is about freedom. I’m playing to make happiness for people,” he tells SBS News.
Asad Alizada arrived in Australia seven years ago. He is a former Afghan soldier who was left partially blind after a gunfight with the Taliban.
“Before I worked with Afghan army, around seven years, the Taliban attacked me and shot three bullets at my head. It’s about 10 years unfortunately that I’m blind,” he says.
After crossing the border to Pakistan, he was later granted a visa to come to Australia.
Asad performs traditional Hazara songs on the tambura, something he wasn’t able to do under the Taliban.
“The Taliban time, it was hard for the people to play music, especially tambura. It was banned at that time. I played in dark rooms with closed windows and doors. I was scared people would hear the sound,” he says.
“In Australia it is good, we can share tambura without any problems from the government or other people.”
Asad is one of several performers taking part in World Music Café, a social enterprise showcasing the music of refugees and migrants to audiences in Western Australia.
Chisenga Katongo arrived in Australia from Zambia nearly eight years ago and is the event’s host.
“World Music Café is about connecting people from various walks of life, regardless of the heritage, colour or creed,” he says.
“People love having a great time and great food. It’s about feeling free and providing opportunities to people of migrant backgrounds.”
The enterprise aims to boost job skills and social connections for new Australians. Migrants not only perform on stage but also organise and manage the events and are in the kitchen preparing multicultural food.
“Food and music is in every culture so the ultimate aim of World Music Café is to build up this social enterprise which becomes the vehicle for people to gain their employability skills, work experience and social connections,” the program’s facilitator Jon Cope says.
The enterprise started in June last year after direct consultations with communities about social and economic empowerment programs for new migrants.
It is run through a collaboration between the federal government’s Multicultural Enterprise Development Project, the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre, Multicultural Futures and community organisation United in Diversity.
After the disruption of COVID-19, a series of intimate concerts are scheduled to take place across Perth this spring.
“The program is designed using an events management model. Events management classes are taught two afternoons per week in a local TAFE and we have an English language mentor and catering mentor involved,” Cope says.
“Its been exciting because we’ve had three groups come through in the last year. Success is when people leave the program because they’ve found jobs elsewhere. This program has built their confidence to go and connect with employers and develop a social network”.
At the heart of the program is the belief that music can guide a person on their journey of building a new life in Australia.
Kavisha Mazzella is an Italian-Burmese Australian, an ARIA Award-winning singer-songwriter, and one of the professional performers acting as a mentor on the program. She says she draws on her heritage to inspire her music.
“When you migrate, you’ve lost a lot of things, you go through a grieving process, you kind of lose a piece of yourself and you get a rebirth.”
“Things like this help a person’s rebirth happen in a positive way in a new country and I love being part of that.”
Cellist Basir Khamooshi and pianist Noura Momtazi arrived in Australia as refugees from Iran only nine months ago.
In their homeland, Basir performed with the Tehran Symphonic Orchestra and Noura was a renowned piano teacher, but they left their homeland amid fear of persecution due to their Baháʼí faith.
“Getting out of Iran was a problem for me because I didn’t have a passport. I hadn’t done military service so the government didn’t want to give me a passport,” Basir says.
“Finally we arrived in Turkey, we went to United Nations and applied as a refugee. After five years, we arrived here.”
Together they play a blend of Persian classical and folk music but say starting over in Australia hasn’t been easy.
“For me, it was difficult. I went through an identity crisis,” Noura says.
“Like, I’m a nobody here, because I was a piano teacher in Iran, I was a somebody,”
“After a couple of months, it got much easier. People around here are very nice. We’re still gradually trying to find our way, but its getting easier and easier every day.”
The next World Music Cafe performance dates are expected to be announced soon at worldmusiccafe.com.au