Research seminars

Rachel Beckles Willson | Music, asylum-seeking and the mobile phone: accountability in a post-peace era

Event details

Speaker: Rachel Beckles Willson (Royal Holloway University of London) 

Date: 7 March 2019

Time: 5.15 - 6.30pm.  

Venue: Lecture Room A, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9DF


The southern edges of Europe are territories of arrival for asylum seekers who have variously been trafficked across Africa, imprisoned, sold as slaves, and tortured in Libya. Such European spaces are thus tapestries of fraught histories and journeys, interlocking with spaces of conflict elsewhere, and in constant flux. In my paper I will present some reflections on several months of work in eastern Sicily, where I have co-run musical activities for male minors recently arrived, unaccompanied, from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and parts of Africa.

Arguments about immigration developed in Europe since 2015 have frequently engaged with the mobile phone. But while this small object’s capacity to facilitate people’s movement through space is now clear, much less discussed is its role in musical processes, particularly in the same communities of people on the move. Unexpectedly, the phone has been a central medium for our work with music. We and/or the boys used it, for instance, to provide tracks in workshops, to send songs and videos that were recorded directly as Whatsapp messages, to share remixes, and to develop Italian song texts. The phone was a crucial part of our activities and, I suggest, through music, intimated a respatialization of the world that was as politically-charged as it was entertaining. 

The talk will also include the presentation of a short film in which asylum-seekers present themselves and their music.


Rachel Beckles Willson is Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, where her teaching reflects research in music of Hungary, the former Soviet Union and the Arab world, with questions relating to nationalism, imperialism and material culture. Her most recent monograph is Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West (Cambridge 2013); work towards her next can be tasted on the web resource She is also an active musician and composer, and currently based in Sicily developing musical and broader educational projects with young immigrants. – see

Mar 07 2019 -

Rachel Beckles Willson | Music, asylum-seeking and the mobile phone: accountability in a post-peace era

Rachel Beckles Willson reflects on musical work with young asylum-seekers in southern Europe, focusing especially in the role of mobile phones in facilitating musical creativity.

Lecture Room A
Alison House
12 Nicolson Square