Interculturalism as Song: Aaron Drain interviews Chief Executive Officer of Beyond Skin, Darren Ferguson (part 1)

Community Arts Partnership runs the PICAS project (Programme for InterCultural Arts Support) and through that project a comprehensive handbook on the question of Intercultural Arts Practice was produced. You can purchase the handbook from Community Arts Partnership  – Information about the handbook can be found at this link.

Folk traditions, popular music, or indeed, lesser known experiments of genre and sound are created and exist to communicate a variety of things to the listener. When we engage with music, we open ourselves up to these extensions of melody and rhythm to understand that perhaps a story needs telling, or an emotion requires surfacing. At the very least, we as listeners can interpret that the sound waves emanating from each single instrument or microphone on a stage are simply a means to an end. Not much separately, but in context, a transformative phenomenon.

As dismissive as that last statement sounds, be assured that it isn’t. Consider that in Northern Ireland, you might find you’re only likely to appreciate a solo drum line as it’s passing a place of worship, so as not to piss off half of the community. That’s not to say that another half relish in that particular sound either; adding flutes to the mix has historically created a very enjoyable cultural paradigm for many here. But honing in on that sentiment, could you imagine enjoying that same marching band, the pride of any 12th of July celebration, compounding their rhythms and timbres with, say a free-form jazz ensemble? Probably not, but rest assured, it’s not going to result in a Mardi Gras dixieland knees-up made for all to set aside their differences and have a jive.

Think too, on the other end of that local cultural spectrum, how cacophonous it would be merging a Celtic folk acappella with a Caribbean reggae band. It may well have been done, but it’s not going to compel you to buy an album, or become bigger than the sum of its parts to speak to the listener on a new cultural wavelength. Well, no more so than this:

What if something does though? What if distinct musical traditions come together to not only open up a prescient new form of dialogue, but do so in a way that recognises separate cultural musical traditions and goes further than simply placing them side-by-side?

Look at Beyond Skin’s Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis, an “innovative new project” from the charity that has recently received Arts Council funding to “create a space for artists in Refugee or Asylum status to meet, collaborate, socialise and get creative”.

A noble initiative, certainly, but with such ambitious socio-political aims in our current landscape where fear, xenophobia and disillusionment are rife, what prompted the charity to utilise music as the driving force in the first place?

“Perhaps a bit selfishly, admittedly, because I’m a musician as well, and it’s always been my strength, though the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis itself has actually been a project in the running for five years now, believe it or not, and we had a couple of pilot programmes in that time,”

explains Darren Ferguson, the man behind the charitable organisation Beyond Skin.

“Because we knew it was going to be a challenging project on many levels, we’d have to stick to what we know in order to manage it well, and since it was an art form I was already comfortable with, it was an easy decision. There’s also the accessibility of music, it’s open to people of any age, gender, capability…it’s a good model for people to easily engage with.” Visual art, theatre, and dance have their attributes, but music, as Darren reiterates, can communicate in a more immediate manner with an audience. “People know what they like, and if it’s good music and they appreciate it, it strengthens the project.”

It’s often proselytised that music is a common language, and given that as an art form it invariably contains indicators relating to mood, emotion, and occasion, it’s easy to understand why the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis goes further than simply acknowledging disparate musical traditions and instead overlaps them. It gives the musicians, many of whom are seeking political asylum from war-torn countries, the confidence to use music as a means of establishing common ground with fellow musicians, but perhaps more importantly, with an audience who may not fully recognise their situation. Again, a noble proposition, but in practice (like any project with lofty ambitions), it requires a certain level of engagement at every level, as well as actively avoiding sounding off-putting.

“From the start, much unlike other projects throughout Beyond Skin’s 12 year history, the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis has been the one that’s been thought out in all its dimensions. Not just the musicality of it, but the marketing, communication with media – every element has been thought through carefully so as to end up here. Through the pilot schemes over the past five years, we were able to work out what we needed to do to make the project a success and we were able to say that, categorically, yes, this is what we want to do and how we want to do it.”

With so much work and contingencies in place, the funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland seems more a fitting reward than a stroke of luck.

“They recognised that we wanted to create a space where people could gather together, and that we wanted to challenge people’s perceptions of refugees, and even the word orchestra, a term that’s been distorted through the ages, despite coming from the Greek for ‘the space in front where people dance’, so it’s not referring to classical music, or even instruments, connotations usually associated with the term.”


 Joby Fox and Orchestra Des Refugies et Amis singing Ambarsariya

From an outsider’s point of view, it’s relatively easy to appreciate the planning and execution of the project, but focusing in on the actual musical end product, what is the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis doing musically via interculturalism that hasn’t been done before? And further, are the participants aware that what they’re aiming to create is a musical identity much larger than what they’re each bringing to the project? Darren suggests that,

“We’re challenging the way that intercultural music has been perceived, which has gone down the wrong path really, and through conversations we’ve had with audiences and the musicians themselves over the past few years, it’s clear that despite good practice, or good intentions, it’s kind of lost its purpose or been pushed into a box. Music is meant to be unequal, it’s meant to challenge barriers, it’s not supposed to be genre specific, ‘inter’ in and of itself represents between, or amongst, and connecting that with culture, we’re creating something that’s amongst ideas.”

But what’s the point if it were to end up sounding terrible? The differing practices have to find a new musical destination that sounds acceptable to an audience, otherwise the Orchestra would essentially relegate itself to only celebrate the act of coming together, instead of the combination of musical identities, and the subsequent new direction fused. The message and openness of the dialogue can’t be as effective if the music itself falls flat.

“It does sound good” Darren says. “Look, these people are musicians, and they don’t want to embarrass themselves either. They want to create something that they can be proud of, that reflects their music and culture, but also open up people’s ears to something new to cross boundaries. We’re constantly striving to have a high quality of music, and reflect that these people are musicians, but they’re also fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, they’re Sudanese, or they’re Irish – all of these things first and that being a refugee is just a status that says they’ve journeyed or travelled to safety.”


 The original version of Ambarsariya

Getting to that point, though, whereby an audience are able to accept that the music being played is much more than just the overlapping instrumentation and rhythm, takes as much planning as has gone in to getting the project off the ground. Being able to enjoy a performance, and recognise that it holds specific contextual meaning is as important as the sound itself. One could argue that left to its own devices, the Orchestra might become a collection of musicians that are more representative of a variety of different musical styles, rather than a successful amalgamation. It stands that some form of facilitation has been required, some organizational process which has led to the actual musical success of the Orchestra, now more a set of equal measures than an amalgam of disparate sounds.

“We’ve appointed a musical director, Joby Fox, who’s a great local singer-songwriter, but Joby has also been on the frontline in Lesbos, he’s extremely passionate about the situation out there. So he was an obvious choice as a person that takes music so seriously, and has that compassion for humanity. He’s perfect in steering the ship, so to speak, but everyone within has a voice. At the minute, there’s a core group of musicians holding it all together while people can come in on the fringes to maybe play a song at an event, or take part in a recording, but at the same time, we don’t seek commitment from them, because if they’re in asylum status, then that takes precedence in their lives.”

Outreach is undoubtedly a major part of what the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis is seeking to achieve, and whether or you can be won over by the music the project creates, it’s worthwhile investigating what the project is doing for people on both sides of that much maligned socio-political divide. On one hand, the project is delivering workshops to create awareness and build bridges between refugees and audiences who may have deep-seated ideas about asylum seekers, on the other, it’s creating opportunities for those same people to have positive experiences through the music they play.

Growing and evolving, the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis might not produce the kind of music that would be a shoe-in for the Christmas number one, but in exploring and advocating interculturalism via a relatively easily digestible form of art, there’s scope to both continue to challenge perceptions of what it means to make music, and how that music is delivered. The work to be done in getting to that stage, I’m certain, is just as satisfying for all involved.

Aaron Drain

Read more from Aaron at the State Magazine website

The second part of this interview can be found here

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.