Saturday, 22 October 2011

On whose terms?

Up to several years ago I worked as a university researcher, studying rural community development and social integration. One of the questions that fascinated me was what it takes for people to become part of a new community. I found that becoming part of a new community, whether as a new resident in a rural community or as a migrant worker, not only demands that you actually participate, but also that you do so on the terms set by that community. This way of thinking provides interesting insights in issues of engagement in community music projects as well. 

The Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects have both been larger community music projects in which I tried to reach out to people who have little or no experience in music-making in the traditional sense. What’s more, I wanted these participants to actively contribute to the process and outcomes of the project. Like other community musicians and artists I often find it difficult to convince people to participate.

Sharing memories of Culter Mills
Looking at a community music project as a community and understanding that a project involves a set of norms and assumptions about music and music-making, and expectations about these by potential participants, has helped me understand how people I try to reach out to may feel about my invitation to do so. For example, in conversations about the work I do I’ve come across the prejudice that the word choral work sounds posh while songs sounds much more acceptable.  

In order to reach out to people I try to look at my projects from the perspective of the people I want to engage. This has been one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to work with folk songs. For many people the idea of community music is new. It is much more likely that they will engage if, in first instance, I work on basis of their understanding of what music is and should be. In Scotland folk music is a genre many people are familiar with.

But is it not only with respect to the content of my community music projects that I have to think about my participants, it is also with respect to the way in which I try to engage people. For the Parallel Lives project I had no existing contacts with people from Central and Eastern Europe. To build establish contacts and build trust I therefore took an ethnographic approach, visiting a group of mothers and toddlers that met weekly. Aware that I was entering their community I realised it would not be possible to deliver a full workshop on my terms, but had to fit my work around the way in which the mothers interact in their sessions.

In both the Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects I aimed to bring communities together. I’ve used music to achieve this. What I've learnt from the social integration research I've done is how important it is to be sensitive towards participants' understandings of what music is and should be, and the often invisible and taken-for-granted norms for social interaction.

 Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Two songs, one story

The previous two blogs contain the songs written as part of the Parallel Lives project, a community music project in which we try to bring together long-term Torry residents and people from Central and Eastern Europe who live in Torry through songwriting and singing.

We’ve Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen, on the melody of Burns’s A Man’s A Man For A’ That, has been written people born and raised in Torry. Many of them have worked in the fish industry themselves or have family members who have done so. The song was written over the course of two workshops. In the first workshop we explored how herring girls might have felt about moving elsewhere to work in the herring industry, the community they moved to, home, and fellow herring girls. This inspired two members of the groups to write a number of verses that were then revised and added to by the full group in the second song writing workshop.

We Came Here For A Better Life, on the melody of Lothian Hairst, has been written by me, based on the experiences of a group of Polish and Czech mothers. Some of these participants arrived in Torry only a few months ago, others have lived here for over five years. They welcomed me to two of their mother-and-toddler sessions and were happy to share their experiences of moving to Torry, and their feelings towards home and fellow people from Central and Eastern Europe.

Though the stories of herring girls and people from Central and Eastern Europe vary, they have even more in common. The song We’ve Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen tells the story of young women moving to Orkney to work in the herring industry as part of a quest to become independent and a desire to see new places and meet new people. At the same time they missed home, and in particular their mother, and were highly aware that their family needed the money they earned. The Polish and Czech mothers describe the tension between moving to Scotland with their children to reunite with their husbands while at the same time leaving behind their family in Poland or the Czech Republic, and thereby an important support network. Yet, in moving to Torry they’ve found a well-paid job, an attractive place to live, and a good school for their children. 

Herring girls and people from Central and Eastern Europe thus share the experience of moving elsewhere to work, but whereas herring girls would return home after the summer, most of the people from Central and Eastern Europe intend to stay. Whether they stay for a long time or not, their migration is an economic migration involving the excitement and challenges of  living far from the home, feelings towards home, fellow migrants and the community they’ve moved to.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

We Came Here for a Better Life

My conversations with Polish and Czech mothers have given rise to the following song. The melody is based on the Scottish song Lothian Hairst, an upbeat tune. 

We came here for a better life
A home and a good job
A good school for our children
A happy family home

Our husbands were already here
We followed with the kids
We now live as a family
In a pleasant Torry home

Our husbands work as bricklayers
We have a cleaning job
This gives us income and good friends
To make a decent home

We love the sea, green fields around
The space where our kids play
We love the Mother and Toddler group
A space that is a warm home

We meet each other after mass
At home, in the Polish shop
The school that our children attend
Torry is a friendly home

We left our mum and dad behind
And stand on our own feet
No mum who helps us with the kids
That can be a challenge at home

Our friends are mainly Polish
We speak a common tongue
And understand each others’ plights
They provide a familiar home

We came here for a better life
And love our Torry home
We hope to stay for a long while
At home away from home

Copyright text and song lyrics participants in the Parallel Lives project and Arts Development