Singer-songwriter and storyteller Diana Jones will return to Caffe Lena on Sunday, bringing poignant songs that speak to the experiences of asylum seekers and displaced families.
“I’m just thrilled to play at Caffe Lena. I haven’t been there in a long time,” Jones said.
Her performance is an early stop on the tour for “Song To A Refugee,” which was released this summer.
“[These songs] still feel very vulnerable and very new and I think that’s a good thing for songs like this,” Jones said.
Jones, who is known for records like “My Remembrance of You” and “Museum of Appalachia Recordings,” has a knack for powerful storytelling and giving voice to people from the past.
However, with “Song To A Refugee,” she amplifies the more pressing stories of women, men and children who are entangled in the border crisis.
She started writing the songs several years ago, after meeting actress Emma Thompson by chance at Tompkins Park in New York City. They connected over their mutual interest in human rights issues and Thompson encouraged Jones to look into the Helen Bamber Foundation, which Thompson had worked with. The foundation was created to care for Holocaust survivors but also assists victims of trafficking and torture.
Through the foundation, Jones learned about a woman who had fled Sudan to seek asylum in the United Kingdom but had to leave her children behind to do so. Inspired by the woman’s story, Jones wrote “I Wait For You,” which became the first song of many about refugees.
Shortly after writing it, the border crisis in the United States worsened, and there were reports of families being separated and children locked in cages. It was devastating to witness and Jones found that the songs just poured out.
“I was so challenged by what was happening that the songwriting actually helped me to make sense of it on a certain level. I was devastated; I was waking up in the middle of the night crying,” Jones said.
Some of the songs she wrote were about a specific person whose story she felt needed to be told, like “Mama Hold Your Baby,” which speaks of a woman who journeyed to the U.S. border in Texas from Guatemala. Other songs are amalgamations of different stories and photographs she’d seen, like “Santiago,” which is inspired by photographs taken by Tom Kiefer of soap, animal crackers and rosary beads, all confiscated from refugees.
“We Believe You” was inspired by a congressional testimony that representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave after visiting the border. In it, Jones writes
“I believe the gang said they would kill you.
I believe they killed your child and your wife.
In the end, there was no one left to save you.
I believe you were running for your life.”
On that song, Jones is joined by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger.
“I think my fear was that these stories and these people would become invisible; that we would rub them out because it was either too much to handle because it was so much or that people had trouble feeling like they were us, we are them,” Jones said.
The album and the originally scheduled tour, which included a visit to the border, were delayed because of the pandemic. However, Jones was able to connect with organizations like Hearts and Homes for Refugees, helping with benefits and raising awareness.
Finally, just a few weeks ago, she was able to perform tracks from the album live and shortly before the show began she had an epiphany of sorts.
“When I did the soundcheck, I just realized it was the first time in 18 months at least that I heard my voice amplified and it sounded so powerful that it was a little bit daunting. It made me realize on a level that I hadn’t thought of . . . how much responsibility it is to be in front of people with that kind of power and giving them a message,” Jones said.
How fitting that she’s touring with “Song To A Refugee,” an album that is both a reflection on the pressing refugee crisis and a call to action.
Her performance at Caffe Lena is slated to start at 8 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $22 for general admission and $11 for students and children. For more information visit caffelena.org.
Over the weekend, concerns arose after a member of the band Darlingside, which performed a double-header on Friday night, tested positive for COVID-19.
It was the first day that the venue had gone to nearly full capacity and required vaccinations. Masks were also strongly recommended. After executive director Sarah Craig found out about the band member’s positive test result, she reached out to the New York State Department of Health among other agencies and alerted ticket holders. As of Wednesday afternoon, all ticketholders who reported to Caffe Lena that they were tested for COVID-19 had negative results.
Craig also said that the venue began requiring vaccinations and encouraging masks just as Governor Andrew Cuomo began encouraging small businesses to require vaccinations and as the Centers for Disease Control changed its mask recommendations.
“We’re kind of pioneering what’s possible when you have a vaccinated population in a space like that and there’s a breakthrough case, perhaps it’s not cause for alarm. The idea is how can we continue to have gatherings with the understanding that COVID is here to stay; it’s not going away. So how can we safely manage that situation?” Craig said.
Moving forward, shows will be capped at 75 people to allow for more distance between parties. Masks will also be strongly encouraged and ticketholders will need to show proof of vaccination.