Erik Higgins is sitting on a leather couch at the Golden Scissors on Holdrege Street, a man in need of a shave.
Hasan Khalil owns this clapboard house-turned-barber shop, painted pale yellow with a wild vegetable garden — tomatoes and eggplant, okra and peppers — growing out front.
The barber was born near the Sinjar Mountains of Northern Iraq, but he spent most of his growing-up years in a refugee camp in Syria.
When he was 14, his family made its way to the United States, first to Buffalo, N.Y., and then to Lincoln, among the first of what would become more than 3,000 Yazidis, most of them fleeing religious persecution and genocide.
He is 33 and a father of three.
Higgins is 34. He grew up here — a Northeast High School graduate who went off to Indiana University to study music and eventually married and moved to Denmark, where he plays bass with the Aarhus Orchestra.
But he was living in Boston in the fall of 2017, listening to the radio, when NPR’s Marketplace aired a story about a community of Yazidi refugees. It told of their lives in his hometown and of their plans to build a cemetery.
One of the men owned a barber shop and played keyboard in a band.
“Music is my passion,” Khalil told the radio reporter. “Ever since I can remember, my dad played the Kurdish long-neck guitar and he sings.”
Higgins was curious.
He found Khalil on Facebook and sent him a message. And a few months later, he showed up at the Golden Scissors.
The barber in the Yankees cap looked at him: You want to come back later and jam?
The bass player did.
And an idea he’d been kicking around back in Boston — a music festival that would cross cultural boundaries and bring people together — starts Monday, seven days of concerts and workshops in venues across the city.
Khalil and the Golden Studio are on the Lincoln Crossroads Music Festival schedule Tuesday, playing outside First-Plymouth Congregational Church.
Higgins will sit in with his bass on a few songs, the music flavored by the Middle East with its haunting quarter-tone sounds.
“It’s Greek, it’s Turkish, it’s Arabic, it’s a little bit Egyptian,” Khalil explains. “It’s more like world music.”
He plays a sample on his phone, Golden Studio performing at a Yazidi wedding, guests forming a circle around the dancing bride and groom.
“I’ve been into music since I was little, but I never had an opportunity to play until I was older,” he says. “My goal is to have a voice. My goal is to get to know people like Erik.”
He talks about the beautiful sounds of the saz and the tamboor — the long-necked guitar-like instrument his father played back in the refugee camp with the other men. “He sang the old story songs about genocide.”
The youngster and his friends would gather around to listen, entranced.
Today, Higgins listens.
The two men have become friends since that first visit. Higgins returns to Lincoln frequently and stops by the barber shop. Each time he talks to Khalil — between playing music and talking music — he learns about another layer of his life.
By happenstance mostly, Higgins says. Like the time Khalil talked about running around without shoes as a child, because he had no shoes.
“That was the first time I knew he spent nine years in a refugee camp.”
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And later, the story of his family’s escape into Syria, Khalil’s father carrying him and his brother on his shoulders, the fear of making any noise as they crossed the fence at the border.
“They almost had to abandon their baby sister because she was crying and would have attracted the attention of soldiers who would have shot them on sight.”
But most of their conversations take place in the present, Higgins says.
“What can we do now to make the best of where we are and who we're with? For him, and for me really, that comes through experiencing music.”
Khalil works alone in this big barber shop with Husker pillows on the oversized couches, murals on the walls depicting scenes from his homes. A Yazidi temple in Iraq, destroyed by IS. A portrait of the barber in front of a New York City skyline, the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers still standing.
Other barbers once rented chairs in his shop, Khalil says, but after his brother died of a stroke two years ago and then his grandmother days after, he decided to go solo.
“That’s why I kind of shut down. I missed so many days of work, I missed so many calls for haircuts.”
For now, he’s OK being alone. He keeps his keyboard in the corner and he plays between customers. Sometimes, a friend will stop and play while he cuts hair, and his bandmates come in the evenings to practice.
They play for Yazidi weddings and parties. They played at Uncle Sam Jam and the Lincoln Arts Festival.
Khalil learned Arabic in the refugee camps. He learned English and how to cut hair in New York.
It was hard when his family arrived in Brooklyn, starting over again.
“We were excited but we were crying, crazy as it sounds, because we missed the camp.”
He has a dream now, thinking about the nights of hunger and cold in the camp, thinking about other children who have fled their homes. He wants them to hold onto hope.
We are all visitors on God's land, he says.
"I would love to live in a community where everyone can accept and respect each other's cultural and religious differences."
Learn from each other, he says.
He turns on the keyboard and sits down to play. He cocks his head listening. Erik listens, too. They hear the quarter tones. Those blue notes.
They want you to hear them, too. Thursday at the Crossroads Festival, there will be a jam, all of the musicians coming together in one big space.
“He wants to bring people together,” Khalil says. “To let the community know we are here.”
The Yazidi barber wants to share his music, but he plays for himself, too. It’s been hard since his brother died and there are other memories, too.
“I feel a sadness sometimes and when I play it makes me feel better.”
“The real reason I started playing is I was having anxiety at school and I would go home and practice for three hours … it was just the best possible place I could be.”
Khalil plays another song.
And then the barber gets up from his keyboard and invites the bass player into his chair for a shave.