Brian Foo had a problem. He’d gotten ahold of four decades’ worth of UN data on the movements of refugees around the world. But he wasn’t sure how to express it—how he could possibly convey the forced dislocation of millions of individuals across a vast expanse of time and space.
The New York-based programmer and visual artist thought back to a Radiolab episode he’d heard on the popularity of American country music in countries ranging from Australia to Thailand to Zimbabwe. On the show, the anthropologist Aaron Fox had suggested that the genre’s surprising cross-border appeal was related to its universal themes of migration, regret, and longing for home.
“The steel guitar is the signature sound of country because it’s recognized as iconic of a crying human voice,” Fox said.
Foo had his cue. He downloaded samples of several instruments used in country music, including the pedal steel guitar and bass guitar, and created an algorithm to map them to the data—to essentially create country music out of refugee flows.
In the three-minute video below, each year between 1975 and 2012 corresponds to a four-second segment of the resulting song. As global levels of refugees rise, so does the number of instruments playing simultaneously. The instruments play longer and lower-pitched notes when the average distance that refugees traveled between their countries of origin and destination in a given year increases. The variety of instruments grows along with the number of countries in a given year that absorbed 1,000 or more refugees.