Resonance, Resilience and Empathy in Music Production with Asylum Seekers in Australia


  • Fiona Magowan Queen's University Belfast


This paper considers how complex emotional dynamics emerge in spaces of music-making between music facilitators, music producers and asylum seekers as they variously navigate experiences of dislocation and re-emplacement. I analyse these musical journeys in terms of resistance and resilience to consider how the musical reworking of grief and pain can become tools to humanize the 'empty spaces' of new worlds through a strategic reorientation of kinaesthetic and imaginative empathy. The paper illustrates how the vicarious recounting of painful journeys[1] by those who have listened to trauma stories immerses both singers and music producers in reciprocal recognition and reimagining of events that have the power to animate the 'empty space' of the singer's displacement. In turn, these movements simultaneously afford opportunities for “a new human sociality” of open-ended dialogue and polyphony which is “centred around, rather than built over against, the victim” (Alison, 1998, p. 307). In this empathic process, I focus on a case study of how one Australian music producer has sought to express emotional transitions in his production process with asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians by moving through his own immersive narratives to elicit musically the poetics of song in a way that enlivens 'the Other', inviting moral action and reaction. I argue that such processes of intercultural production are not just a means of recording music as commodity but a form of co-creating empathy. Yet, the paradox of empowerment is such that it is because of the very vulnerability of asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians, that their songs have become a powerful medium of validation that makes them both highly personal and intimately public. In turn, I suggest that both music producers as listeners (and ourselves as readers) become morally bound to act upon our appreciation of these stories in the context of state and national agendas, having the capacity to empower further recognition of asylum seeker musicians who are coping with fragile senses of liminality.


[1] See also Lenette and Procopis (2016, p. 12) on ‘emotional journeys’ of volunteers.

Author Biography

Fiona Magowan, Queen's University Belfast

Fiona Magowan is a Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute of Global Peace, Security and Justice and Professor of Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast. She has conducted fieldwork in Australia’s Northern Territory with Yolngu; in South Australia with Stolen Generation artists; and with Australian musicians working with refugees. Magowan is PI of the PaCCS funded project, 'Sounding Conflict: From Resistance to Reconciliation' (2017-2021) which examines sound, music, storytelling and digital media (see Her book publications include, Christianity, Conflict, and Renewal in Australia and the Pacific (Brill 2016, co-edited with Carolyn Schwarz); Performing Gender, Place, and Emotion (Rochester 2013 co-edited with Louise Wrazen) and Melodies of Mourning: Music and Emotion in Northern Australia (Oxford, James Currey 2007).