A Swedish choir that bridges cultures

The Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege has been an international ambassador of the Postcode Lotteries since 2019. For twenty years, at the risk of his own life, the gynaecologist has been working for victims of wartime rape. Often these women were horrifically mutilated. In 2018, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his good work.

The refugee choir The Rockin’ Pots from Sweden is a success story. Singing turned out to be the happiest way to learn the language and integrate. The project is supported by the Swedish Postcode Lottery. “Music is the best way to break through fear of the unknown.”

Jonas Hagström (40) and his wife Rosmari run a thriving music school in Östersund in central Sweden. Children and adults learn to play an instrument or join a choir. Everything changed when an intern started working there seven years ago. He was 26-year-old Edward, who had fled from Uganda to find a safe home in Sweden. In his home country, he was trained as an accountant, but in the Swedish town he waited idly for a decision on his residence status.

Until the refugee crisis in 2015, there were few immigrants in this part of Sweden. “Before we met Edward, we had never met a refugee. Edward did a great job, and he soon became a friend. When we visited him at home, we couldn’t believe our eyes: he lived in an asylum seekers’ centre, in a former military camp in the middle of the woods. We found 500 depressed refugees who were bored to death. That touched us deeply.”

'Singing makes you happier'
They decided to start a choir in the refugee camp, where people could forget their worries for an hour a week. They called themselves The Rockin’ Pots. “We started the choir without a preconceived plan; we just wanted to do something for the refugees. We knew that singing is good for your well-being: when you sing, a substance is released in your brain that makes you happier.”

They soon noticed that the choir did indeed have a positive effect. There was a lot of enthusiasm. “The participants had fun; they sang and they danced. We heard from choir members that they slept better. One even stopped taking antidepressants.”

Jonas Hagström and his wife Rosmari

Eye-opener for all
The choir members learned Swedish while having fun. “In asylum seekers’ centres, it can take years before people receive language lessons, because it is uncertain whether they will be allowed to stay. Now they started working on the lyrics themselves. And the great thing was that people of different nationalities became friends, whereas before they had never spoken to each other.”

Many newcomers to Sweden live in isolation. They have difficulty entering Swedish society and finding work and friends. This is a pattern that was broken when Hagström decided to have the refugee choir perform with his existing choirs. “Our two hundred choir members from the Music School came into contact with the refugee choir, and that was an eye-opener for all of them.”

National fame
A network was created. The Swedish choir members invited the refugees to dinner, played sports together, and helped them with housing, internships and jobs. “Music is the best way to break through fear of the unknown and create togetherness.”

Already in the first year, The Rockin’ Pots gained national fame when the well-known Swedish singer Tomas Ledin learned that the choir had his music in their repertoire. He invited them to a joint performance. “The circus hasn’t stopped since then,” Hagström says. The choir got a role in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, which Sweden hosted that year. This was followed by performances throughout the country. Audiences were moved that newcomers were singing the Swedish classics.

Support by Postkodstiftelsen
In 2016, the choir received its first contribution from Svenska Postkodstiftelsen, which is funded entirely by the Swedish Postcode Lottery to support projects that bring about positive social change - in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis they decided to give extra support to good causes for refugees. In 2018, the fund provided The Rockin’ Pots with a grant of around €240,000 to set up choirs in five other places in Sweden.

“We found this very interesting and decided to get further involved,” says Marie Dahllöf, Secretary General of Svenska Postkodstiftelsen. “What’s unique with this choir is precisely the integration it leads to – that Swedes and newly arrived refugees meet and sing together and, through that, develop an understanding and friendships that probably would not have happened otherwise.”


Online performance
Unfortunately, the expansion plans are temporarily on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, the choir can no longer meet physically. “At first, we were still singing together online, but in the second lockdown we couldn’t keep the energy up any more. Fortunately, we were still able to work together on an online performance for the Postcode Lottery this winter.”

The result is a beautiful video clip filmed on the ice at Östersund, with the choir singing 'We are our country', another song by Tomas Ledin. The song is about people forming a country together, regardless of where they come from. The video clip was broadcast during an online charity event of the Swedish Postcode Lottery in which all beneficiaries were put in the limelight.

A different perspective
Postkodstiftelsen has extended the subsidy by one year, so that Hagström can still fulfill his dream of starting refugee choirs in other cities as well. “We hope that we can give people throughout Sweden a different perspective. The media often portray refugees as a problem: they cost us money and benefit from our welfare state. Xenophobia often stems from ignorance. Now people are discovering that refugees are just people like us, with families, dreams and wishes.”

Documentary about The Rockin’ Pots

In the autumn of 2022, Swedish national television will broadcast a documentary about The Rockin’ Pots. This documentary is being funded by the Swedish Postcode Lottery and made by a production company that makes many music documentaries.

The documentary follows Jonas Hagström, the founder of the choir, and choir members who have fled wars to come to Sweden. Thanks to the choir, they learn Swedish and gain a new sense of belonging.

Visit the website of The Rocking Pots.