The Monthly interviews Beyond Skin’s Chief Executive Darren Ferguson – Part 1

How did Beyond Skin come about?

My background was in community organisations, faith-based groups, and I was also a musician. I was interested in what Peter Gabriel was doing not just musically but also in the humanitarian work he was involved with.

In 2004 Belfast was named “the race hate capital of Europe” and I thought something had to be done about that. I started with what I knew which was music; was a musician, and I went from there.

I had noticed a project called 1 Giant Leap, which was pulled together by two musicians, Jamie Catto (Faithless founding member) and Duncan Bridgeman, and they travelled the world spreading a particular message around the question of what it is to be human, and I decided to link in with that.

What did you end up doing?

I went to Belfast City Council and spoke to a lady called Caroline Wilson in the Good Relations Department. I wanted to show the film 1 Giant Leap which supported that project and I thought the city council should be part of that. She told me that the council couldn’t fund individuals, that funding had to go to organisations. That started the ball rolling for setting up Beyond Skin.

Where did the name come from?

In 2004 Human, the sixth album by Mercury Music prize nominee Nitin Sawhney (a British-Asian musician), was released. This reminded me of the influence and message of his fourth album, Beyond Skin, also a Mercury Prize nominee. Nitin had a quote on the back of the album, and that struck a chord with me: ‘My identity and my history are defined only by myself – beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion, and Beyond Skin’, and it was this idea that served as a starting point for our organisation.

I got a few people together to form an association and constitute a group, and I wanted to show the film. We organised three film screenings and we invited the musicians over and at that point even though it went well I hadn’t really thought about going any further.

I was working at Concern Worldwide and I was enjoying my work, so I was put in a position where I thought “where to now”?

You organised a recording project?

Yes. The McPeakes, in particular Francis McPeake IV from the famous Irish traditional group, had a studio and they invited us in to record an album which we titled the Motion Project. It was very organic. Someone knew a Polish musician who knew someone else working in a call centre with a Venezuelan musician who shared a house with a Slovakian musician, etc. It was a real word of mouth scenario. Everyone came together to make an album, “Music from a Diverse City” and once that happened, the organisation started to develop.

Beyond Skin did a lot of community work and lots of work in schools?

With Beyond Skin things tend to develop organically and there isn’t much of a roadmap. We were working on the album and then we were asked to do a workshop. Now at that point hardly anyone had been in the recording studio at the same time, many of them hadn’t met.

We developed a workshop and out of that experience we were asked to do another one and we developed something called an interactive musical experience, IME’s. Effectively we would take musicians into the classroom from a range of backgrounds and set up instruments so that they could play music and through interactive activities, schoolchildren would join in. Again this was very successful.

You did a lot of those IME’s?

We facilitated IME’s for thousands of school children and community groups. We did those for years and we involved many musicians from an ethnic minority background working alongside local musicians, indigenous musicians. At one point a lot of people in local councils or funding organisations thought that was all we did.

Around 2011 or 2012 that started to change. We wanted to do different things despite the IME’s being so successful.

What came next?

Around 2011, the British Council sent a group of people to Sri Lanka for a week. I always thought that we had a lot to learn from people in developing countries. While I was there I asked if the British Council knew anyone who worked with music to bring people together. It turned out that they did know someone and I met up with them, a lady called Shalini Wickramasuriya, and from there a project developed. That project was called Parallel Versing. It was a project involving school children from Northern Ireland and students in Sri Lanka.

How did Beyond Skin develop from that point?

For long periods it was quite difficult to get our point across. We had the IME’s, Homely Planet Radio, The Motion Project, and later our international projects. Because our work on the ground was teaching us all sort of interesting lessons, how you talk with people, what kind of language works, what is the best way to run meetings or conferences, we felt that our on the ground experience had a lot to offer to other people active in the areas the we were active in. Given our success I think it is fair to say we have become a lot bolder with regards our ideas over the last few years.

Did you get any help?

We did find the Arts Council very receptive. We had to have longer discussions with statutory bodies, good relations departments or similar bodies as they found it difficult to comprehend immediately how we used the arts, particularly music, to encourage peace building.

What about the theoretical underpinnings?

We do tend to work directly on the ground but it isn’t as if we haven’t some theory which underpins the work.

We do talk with academics all the time; people from Queens University always want to talk to us to ask us what it is that we do. They learn from us and our practices and our on the ground experiences.

I suppose we work centrally with the idea of familiarisation; introducing people from different backgrounds, different nationalities, and we work on developing relationships between those people using music as the bridge between them. We see that process as the way to break down racism.

Would you ever set up an academic arm of Beyond Skin?

We did for a while write blogs and tried to address questions that emerged from our work. And if you were being blunt about it, there is a lot of money available for academic studies and we could have gone in that direction. That is fine, but as far as we are concerned we felt better to focus on actual on the ground peace building, working with people, bringing people together to share experiences, that is crucial.

I suppose if you pushed me we work on a familiarisation process. We introduce people from different cultural backgrounds through the arts or a creative process. It is all about relationships – I love bringing people together, helping them with resources they may need for their social action, then stepping back to let them get on with it.

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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.