What is your earliest memory regarding music or the arts?
I can think back to when I was three. I loved the song “I will always love you” sung by Whitney Houston and my mum told me that I could sing that before I could speak the words properly.
Did you keep going with music?
Yes. I had a toy keyboard and I learnt to play that. I taught myself to play all the songs that were on that keyboard. My mum had a guitar and I taught myself how to play that as well.
There wasn’t a lot of music at home and I didn’t get any lessons or anything like that. The big shift came when I was offered lessons at school when I was 11 years old. I was offered any instrument I wanted to learn. I begged my mum to let me learn the saxophone and she didn’t really agree to that but she said I could learn the piano. I wasn’t really happy about that but I found that I loved the piano.
I learnt how to play “Hands Together” within a few weeks, I developed very quickly. I learnt musical theory through learning piano and that meant I could take that to lots of other instruments.
You became a multi-instrumentalist?
I was always looking to play music so I just found myself learning new instruments. I taught myself guitar, bass and harp. Every opportunity I could I just looked to play anything I could get my hands on. And all of this was through school really. Music wasn’t really that important at home so it was at school that my enthusiasm was encouraged.
You now work as a session musician?
I decided at around the age of 23 that I had to keep pursuing music. I work as a musician, a session musician, so I play all sorts of musical styles and pretty much anything I am asked to play I will do that. As a session musician I pretty much have to be a musical jukebox. Piano and Harp are the most popular instruments that I play, or at least am asked to play.
What got you interested in intercultural music?
I have as much a fascination with culture as I have with music. Whenever I meet someone from another country I become fascinated with their culture, food, clothing, music. I just want to know more about how that culture works. I get very excited about learning about what makes a country unique.
Your interests were apparent when you studied at University?
I was studying Psychology at University and I decided to look at the question of Islamophobia in Northern Ireland. I wanted to investigate whether there was Islamophobia or not. At the time there were people suggesting that Northern Ireland was free of Islamophobia.
When I did my research a very high percentage of people I talked to believed that there was Islamophobia here. The first time I turned up to speak at a large event held by the Muslim Community, the Eid Festival around 2014 or 2015, which was held at the Shankill Leisure Centre. That sort of proved my point for me. Everyone had to be evacuated and that really created an atmosphere of fear. The Police and the Fire Brigade had to come and it was all very worrying. It also led to people talking to me about their experiences.
Actually that was quite a difficult period. I had death threats at that time. The topic was a very risky topic to discuss.
You also got involved with Beyond Skin?
Yes. I wanted to be part of peacebuilding. I wanted to find an avenue which might work for me so that I could be part of peacebuilding without adding to a situation which created tension. I really liked what Beyond Skin was doing, peacebuilding and supporting diversity using music as a bridge between people. I had good musical skills and I also had language skills as well and that led me to working with the Beyond Skin project, Orchestre des Refugies et Amis.
The orchestra was made up of a very diverse group of musicians and in that project I was able to marry my musical skills with my language skills. I am able to learn languages relatively quickly and I can sing in Hindi, French, Spanish and Arabic.
You were part of the orchestra?
Yes and I loved every minute of that. I think at the moment the Lockdown has meant that the Orchestra cannot perform but if it starts up again when Lockdown is over I would be very happy to continue my involvement with that project.
You now have a new project, Hestia?
I wanted to write a song about choosing to be strong through hard times. I had been seeing a lot of online discussions where people were saying that it was okay to be depressed and experiencing mental health difficulties and you should seek help. Now I thought that was great, I thought it was important advice, but I also thought that there was another part of the puzzle that needed to be looked at.
To me you can use your own strength to get you through adversity and I had been talking to a producer friend of mine and had suggested that I might write a song based on that idea.
How did you go about creating the song?
I was browsing online and I found myself listening to some Samba music and I heard a band from France playing and I really liked the beat. I was able to get a drummer in Beyond Skin to replicate the beat and then I added a bass and guitar part and I wrote a song based on the idea I had.
You wrote the whole song, “Strength is a Choice”?
I wrote lyrics where I explored the idea that life will always challenge you but you can rise above whatever difficulties you face. The song is about finding strength within yourself, but also that the arts can help you as well. In some sense it is about working with the things you can control and not worrying too much about those things which are out of your control.
I contacted people from 25 different countries to perform a dance for a video to accompany the song. It was amazing that it all came together.
The song was part of Beyond Skin’s Make Music Day presentation?
Yes it was and the version that was in that presentation was produced by Mark Smulian who works with Beyond Skin. There will be a new version which will be slightly different from the version available at the moment.
I have an agreement with a French Samba band to use a sample of their music. I am also working with a drummer in Belfast who will add drums to the sample and I have a producer friend of mine who is working with me, so there will be a different version available soon and I am very excited about that.
Hestia is an intercultural project?
I am working in the areas that I am most enthused about, producing music, working with other cultures and blending that work with what cultural elements which interest me. I want to send positive messages to people, that we can find the strength to get us through difficult times and the project will develop with that as a starting point.