In St. Louis, refugees use music to connect with the past and look to the future | St. Louis Public Radio

In St. Louis, refugees use music to connect with the past and look to the future

Aug 9, 2018

A teenager from Democratic Republic of the Congo  finds himself on the other side of the world, starting a new life in St. Louis. A young Bosnian woman whose family fled their country when she was little more than a toddler now finds herself looking for ways to connect to her past.

Their stories, while shaped by the particulars of war and of history, are like single voices in a larger chorus: refugees who re-settled in the United States and now use music as a way to understand the past and make their way forward.

A concert at Pulitzer Arts Foundation on Friday will showcase Jacob “Lilshacko” Shacko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnian father/daughter duo Edo Sadikovic and Maja Sadikovic, and other one-time refugees playing the music of their homeland.

The show is organized by Louis Wall, the local musician who leads The Texas Room, a musical collaborative that released a compilation album in 2016 featuring immigrant musicians who’ve relocated to St. Louis. Friday’s performance builds upon a sound installation, Wall, created for the Pulitzer, featuring local immigrants telling their stories in their native languages.

Other performers  include Lemké, a hip-hop artist from Cameroon via France and Adria Maria Gutierrez, who will speak about her experiences traveling between Mexico and the United States.

Here’s a closer look (and listen) at two of the musical acts that will be part of the show.

Jacob Shacko learned how to play guitar while living in a Ugandan refugee camp. He attends high school in St. Louis and leads the band Wise Forever.
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

Jacob “Lilshacko” Shacko

Jacob Shacko was 8 years old when his family fled the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father was killed in the violence and he, his mother and eight siblings lived in the Ugandan refugee camp Nakivale for seven years. That’s where he learned to play guitar, jamming with others at the camp, and eventually writing songs and playing shows at the request of the office of United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, the UN’s refugee agency.

“Let’s make some dance,” Shacko said of his mindset in those days. “Let’s do some music. Let’s do this to forget our bad experiences that we had. Let’s do this to bring ourselves together. Let’s do this for a change.”

He arrived in St. Louis from Uganda two years ago with his mother and a few siblings. Shacko, 17, now attends Soldan International Studies High School. The adjustment to life in the U.S. has been challenging, he said, but music both reminds him of home and helps him transition to his new environment.

He started singing at Pentecostal Fellowship of the Holy Spirit and impressed people with his impassioned vocal delivery.

Now he performs as Lilshacko, leading Wise Forever, a band that plays original tunes and some covers of African pop songs.

“Music is what I love, and no matter what, I’ll always do music,” he said.

Maja Sadikovic and Edo Sadikovic perform the Bosnian folk music known as sevdah. Maja learned the style from her father.
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

Edo Sadikovic and Maja Sadikovic

A professional accordion player, Edo Sadikovic was playing a gig in Germany when war broke out in his homeland of the former Yugoslavia in 1992. His wife, Aysha Sadikovic and their small child, Maja, were back at home in Prijedor, a city in the northeast of Bosnia. The borders were closed, he said, and he wasn’t allowed back into the country.

“We managed to get them out, and get other family members out alive,” he said. “We didn’t really leave, we were forced to get out. And we couldn’t go back when war ended. It’s difficult, probably, to explain. It was just war, let’s call it that way. Bad times.”

The Sadikovics relocated to Berlin for eight years before some family members in the St. Louis area sponsored them for a visa to America. These days, Edo repairs accordions and gives lessons, and plays the occasional gig. Maja, 29, was classically trained in European choral music as a child, and later took to jazz. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began connecting emotionally with sevdah, the form of melancholy folk music that is her father’s specialty.  

“Those are mainly love songs,” Edo Sadikovic said. “As a small child you do not experience that love so you cannot feel that, sevdah. But later in life as you get your first love or unrequited love, you start listening to sevdah because you start to feel that. Sevdah to the Bosnian is like the blues to an American.”

Edo Sadikovic fled the former Yugoslavia with his family when civil war broke out there in 1992.

Now Maja joins her father and other traditionally oriented musicians to play the old songs, but she sings in a clear, jazz-derived style rather than employing the heavy vibrato and frequent trills that characterize the vocals in traditional sevdah.

Her repertoire of Bosnian folk tunes is complemented by songs from Croatia and Serbia. She was concerned the first time she played a song associated with one of these cultures, who have a history of conflict among them, at a party thrown by people from a different Balkan nation. She wasn’t sure how it would be received. It turned out that everybody started dancing.

“Yes, we came from this war torn region,” Maja Sadikovic said, “but when the Balkan people come together, I’ve always found that the music is what brings them back to this [sense of] ‘we are the same’ or ‘we are one nation.’

“There’s suddenly this loss of pretense and they just become these people who are enjoying these songs. So it’s beautiful to watch and heartbreaking at the same time, because when the music is gone, it’s right back to their respective roles.”

If you go

What: Music and Performances by The Texas Room

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Blvd., St. Louis

Admission: Free

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin