Interculturalism as Song: Aaron Drain’s interview with Chief Executive Officer of Beyond Skin, Darren Ferguson (part 2)

The first part of this interview can be found here

You mention earlier that you felt Intercultural music had gone “down a wrong path”. Could you explain why you think that?

It is basically the confusion between, multiculturalism and interculturalism; a multicultural approach and an intercultural approach.

I’m not suggesting that all the work carried out in the name of diversity or multiculturalism is bad, or that it isn’t useful. And I’m definitely not judging people on why work was carried out in a particular way. Anything that brings people together, festivals or workshops, in and of itself is a good thing.

We have to remember that for some time the approach has been that most of the audiences for what we do are predominantly white and they come to see “the other” perform. But there are some issues that need to be addressed and I think we need to be a bit more careful with the work we do.

Firstly, a lot of the festivals that celebrate diversity, they have become very predictable. It’s the same approach. You come along, you see people from other cultural backgrounds perform, you clap, you say it’s very good and that is where the contact stops. There is a barrier which doesn’t allow you to go any further.

A programme might have African drummers because that is what they do, that starts and stops, and then Bollywood dancers because that is what young Indian girls do, that starts and stops and so on. It’s very predictable and in the end, it’s not good for the audiences and it’s not good for the artists either, who want to be creative and who like to be unpredictable.

There is a danger, using this approach, of reinforcing a stereotype. Not all Polish musicians like Polish folk music just as not all Irish musicians like Irish traditional music. This approach ends up putting people in boxes.

Do you think that we need to make a distinction between multiculturalism and interculturalism?

Yes, absolutely. Interculturalism is the pioneering aspect of work in the area of diversity now. It is the pioneering aspect of work in terms of multiculturalism. With a multicultural approach people have come to know what to expect. We see this in calls to our office, ‘can you get us an African drumming group,’ as if Beyond Skin is an entertainment agency, and we have fought against this.

We say we are not an entertainment agency, what we do requires dialogue, engagement and exchange. What we do aims to challenge segregation, racism.

And while we challenge that side of the situation we also challenge ideas around creativity. We think everyone has the capacity to be creative, just as everyone has the capacity to care about people from other places.

How is it that people have so much empathy for people from Syria? How is it that humans don’t always work to the idea of “survival of the fittest.” It’s that ‘mystery’ that we want to explore.

What does that mean for your work?

It’s the mystery of combining elements of the best aspects of humanity, the ability to care about people from the other side of the world, people we have never had any contact with, our capacity to love, and combining that with the mystery of art.

And that’s why we want to challenge definitions, because a huge aspect of the work we do can’t be easily defined. Sometimes we just don’t know what is going to happen; sometimes it will be controversial. Sometimes it will work out in different ways to what we expected, but again it has to have that element of mystery about it.

So if we took Community Arts Partnership’s definition of Interculturalism*, that we bring people from different cultures together and aim to create an artistic hybrid, a new piece of music in your case – do you challenge that definition?

Well, we want to challenge everything. Say for example the term “safe space”. We say we are creating a ‘safe space’ for artists to come together and create. But in order to create something new you need, almost, an ‘unsafe space’. David Bowie has a very good post on Facebook about this, where to create as an artist you need to find that space which makes you feel a little uncomfortable, a little out of your depth, and then you might create something interesting. So we want to create that space for our musicians.

So you would agree that the point of the Intercultural process is to create something new, a hybrid of the cultural inputs?

Again, yes but – the project has to work towards that. It isn’t just simply a matter of sticking people in a room and after a few sessions you’ve got your intercultural song which fits the definition.

There is a clip of the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis performing on the Gerry Kelly show and they perform an Indian song, Ambarsariya. That is a cover of a popular Indian song, it isn’t a new piece of music.

The nature of the Orchestre des Réfugiés et Amis project is that we are working with people seeking refugee status or asylum seekers or people who have a lot going on in their lives. Often the Orchestre is made up of people who won’t attend every rehearsal or performance. So sometimes covering other people’s songs is a good way of just making the Orchestre work.

Of course we want to work towards producing new music and that is what Joby Fox, the Musical Director, will be looking towards doing.

But there is also the question of making sure people are able to express themselves in whatever way suits them, so it might be that a musician comes to the project and suggests a song to play. And that might be a folk song or a song from their particular cultural background. That could be the first stage in a process which ends with the Orchestre producing new music. Again the process has to allow for some ‘mystery’.


So you would say the project is challenging everything, from the use of language, to the process of creating music, particularly the process of creating new Intercultural music?

We want to make sure that there is the maximum amount of flexibility and freedom with our approach and with the project. Yes, ultimately, we want to create something new and we want the public to hear that.

However, we have a performance in the Out to Lunch Festival on January 20th.  Some of the musicians who will play on that day won’t have attended one rehearsal, and some who will have attended rehearsals won’t be playing on stage.

This is very challenging for the Music Director, Joby Fox, who is working very hard to make sure what is performed, sounds good, and has some flow to it. But that’s just the way this project has to be.

This, to us, creates a foundation where the potential for further exploration is possible.

Just remember that we are also challenging what the expectations are of audiences regarding what they are prepared to listen to. The X Factor and shows like that, have shaped people’s tastes. The pop culture that most people are exposed to doesn’t reflect people’s lives very much at all, and doesn’t offer much musical variety.

We also have to factor in the media’s portrayal of refugees and asylum seekers. It is rarely positive. That has an impact on the project as well. We have work to do in questioning the public’s perceptions of those in the Orchestre as well as opening people’s minds to different musical experiences. Doing all of this, challenges Beyond Skin as an organisation as well.

* (see Dr Shelley Tracey’s article for an exploration of the definition of Interculturalism in November’s Monthly)

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