I’m a community-builder who uses music. How am I doing so far?

By David Mowat, founder of BEJE and community worker 18/5/20

Main Questions to people who’ve attended gigs I’ve organised/played at, or who read about my work :

1. Has attending concerts at Saint Stephen’s or at Lincoln Gardens Care Scheme helped you connect more with others? Explain how.

2. Has the music programme at Saint Stephen’s reduced any barriers you may have felt between church-member/goer and non-church member?

3. Has the music programme at Lincoln Gardens helped reduce any barriers between this establishment and the neighbourhood, or between non-resident and tenant?

4. Does BEJE convey to you a positive spirit of internationalism that you feel emboldened by?

Last week ACE Arts Council England awarded me emergency funding to give me some time and space to explore my practice, given the nearly complete absence of live gigs during this pandemic on which much of my livelihood depended. This is part of what I told them I’d do if I received funding:

I’ll use the time to think critically about, blog and debate my role as a builder of community through the arts locally (as in older people’s work) and globally e.g. the political internationalism of BEJE.

Lincoln Gardens community room during a gig. Pam drums a tambourine whilst the daughter of a visitor Aisha, interacts with Princess

I began this adventure of consciously fusing together my two practices of music and community work 20 years ago when I helped start East Bristol Jazz Club and produced King Cotton, a community jazz musical about the Great Western Cotton Factory in Barton Hill (cds for sale).

Now I’m thinking about the last 10 years or so. I’m blogging to generate dialogue and help my practice to improve.

Building community through music locally has had two main outlets in my practice. For 11 years I’ve curated mainly lunch time concerts at Saint Stephen’s Church in Bristol’s city centre. And for 5 years I’ve organised weekly musical entertainment at Lincoln Gardens Extra Care Scheme in Lawrence Hill.

I claim that what I’m trying to do in these two locations is not only give enjoyment to individuals who’ve attended gigs I’ve played in or curated. I hope I’ve helped connect people to others attending these events, perhaps because they’ve shared an enjoyable experience and memory, or realise their common love for a song, or see that lived through the same era evoked by a pop song. The concert may have helped create an atmosphere in which barriers between us are lowered.

Dutch singer Anne Chris with BEJE at Saint Stephen’s in 2015-all my eggs in one basket: internationalism and secular music in a sacred space drawing diverse audiences together (I hope).

If you’ve attended concerts at Lincoln Gardens or Saint Stephen’s can you say that it’s helped connect you more to others?

What was it about the event that did it for you?

Is there something else about building community through music at an event I’ve organised that I’ve missed out?

More than helping connections to increase between people present, I hope that my work has helped reduce barriers between the church and care home on the one hand, and ‘outsiders’ on the other. Both events have been public. In the case of Lincoln Gardens a few non-tenants have attended: family members, carers local residents and of course the performers themselves. In the case of Saint Stephen’s Church, both congregation members and others have come. I like to think that pagans and atheists and others have sat near to Christians without being bothered about any difference, but have been held together in the experience of the music.

Is this hope of mine true?

Are you a non-Christian who has perhaps looked more kindly on the building and the community (/ties) of Saint Stephen’s because of the concerts you’ve attended?

Does the church wall give less of a ‘keep out’ message to you than perhaps it once did?

If so, so what?

Would you put it another way?

Does Lincoln Gardens feel less a place-apart from the neighbourhood as a result of having public concerts there?

Building community on a global scale. This section may sound very grandiose. By it, I don’t mean I’m trying to replicate the United Nations. But whilst much of my life has been focused in the minutiae of neighbourhoods, I’ve also had a feeling for the ‘global village’, for how globalisation has pulled the web of humanity ever-closer. I am a strong believer in the cliché ‘There is only one race, the human race’. And that ‘we sink or swim together’. And I’ve tried to use music to do that. One of the bands I set up (it no longer feels ‘my’ band except in a parental sense) is Chai For All. Band members are equally interested in Middle Eastern music and politics as in Jewish music culture and politics. However I don’t want to focus on that here. Rather I draw attention to the Bristol European Jazz Ensemble (BEJE) founded 2013.

With BEJE I’ve tried to promote the idea that one English city, Bristol, is very much ‘a part of the continent’ to quote John Donne. Alongside giving enjoyment to audiences and players who love jazz I hope we’re conveying the idea that culture in general and jazz in particular (and our music particularly so) is border-less. And politically, it -and its makers- have to cross borders to breathe and flourish. BEJE pre-dated Brexit but anticipated it. More recently BEJE has become more international still in our collaboration with Yunmi Kang and Sangyeon Park of South Korea. Most of that collaboration, inshallah, is still to come.

BEJE at the Stroud Jazz Festival in 2016

If you’ve ever been to a gig or heard our music and read about us, does the BEJE project convey to you the positive spirit of internationalism?

If so how does it do it?

Do you buy into it?

Does the BEJE ‘brand’ add anything to the feeling of jazz as a political international force for good which is arguably a commonplace idea?

Is it a minor part of a bigger project, which is music pure and simple? Are these aspirations of mine just so much twaddle that get in the way of music?

That’s enough for a first blog. I hope you’ll respond. I’m not looking for praise, I’m looking for evidence and constructive comments to help me improve. Thank you for reading. David Mowat. 

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