Study: Music and Culture in the Community

In 2007 we were asked to take part in a public consultation carried out by the Dept. Of Communities and Living (as it was then known – not sure what it’s called now, maybe The Ministry Of Oh Shut Up and Quit Whining About the Superb Job The Government Is Doing, Considering That No One Actually Voted Them In?) about the importance of the arts in helping diverse communities to come together. I wrote this (rather long,admittedly) report to show how the arts, and music in particular, is a vital component in the life of a nation and as a reflection of its culture it is vital that we continue to support the arts. ​

MUSIC AND CULTURE IN THE COMMUNITY


In this document we outline the reasons why the arts (and in our case specifically, music) are an important facilitator of what the consultation document calls “bridging”, “bonding” and “linking”, and how music can be used to further understanding, and ultimately co-operation, by people of different cultural and faith communities. Fundamentally, it is our experience that the arts can facilitate this understanding in ways that an academic, scholarly or theologically based approaches cannot.

The arts and music are core elements in contributing to a sense of shared cultural reference and thereby a sense of “belonging.” It is clear to us that certain aspects of our Western cultural heritage are not being experienced by significant sections of the population, especially members of those communities that originate in the Middle East,  the Indian sub-continent and, Sub Saharan Africa to a lesser degree where music is concerned, the Caribbean.

We would have liked to have gone into more detail on each question posed in the consultation paper but as we do not currently have the capacity to do that our contribution is brief but to the point. The topics that we raise and opinions put forth are based on over 20 years of experience in working both in the music industry and as  music educators in a variety of situations. Also, it should be noted that the founder of Berakah, Mohammed Nazam, is from a Muslim background and so his experience and  understanding of that community has informed many of the opinions expressed in this document.

Having worked in this area for many years now, our responses in the section headed “Section 6 –Case Study” broadly address a number of key issues. These are:

How can the lessons learned and experiences gained from interfaith dialogue and social action help to build relationships with people from different communities more widely?

How are you promoting and encouraging interfaith activity and sharing best  practice? What are the best ways of encouraging people to take part?  What role might government play to champion this?

What can successful existing approaches tell us about the key building blocks needed for interfaith dialogue and social action?

 

Where our responses are pertinent to other questions we have made notes within the body of the text.

To begin with, we will look at factors that contribute towards the well being of a community.

SHARED CULTURE?​

First of all, what is “culture”? Generally the term refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Different definitions of “culture” reflect different theoretical bases for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity. Culture is manifested in music, literature, lifestyle, painting and sculpture, theatre and film. It would also be helpful to make a  distinction between “popular culture” (newspapers, television, pop music) and other, arguably more sophisticated forms (literature, art, non-mainstream musical styles).

The engineer and inventor Buckminster Fuller said that the wealth of a society is only partly based on the affluence and material systems at work. He suggested that the true “wealth” of a society was in it’s ideas, traditions, cultural points of reference and shared values and in a society such as ours, rich in literature, art, philosophy, history, science and a number of distinct musical styles from Classical to Latin Jazz. This is similar to the idea of “social capital” mentioned in the consultation document.​

Many of the new ethnic communities that have appeared in the UK in the last thirty or forty years have come from cultures where religion and faith still defines much of that societies behaviour, both in terms of values and arts. Their religion, as interpreted and  handed down by academics, scholars and the ”priest class”, dictates what is correct and allowed in literature, sculpture, paintings and music and therefore the appreciation  of cultural pursuits is formed against a backdrop of theological constraint.

Therefore it can be said that, on a subtle and psychological level, people of certain communities are not experiencing the ‘wealth” of a nation on more levels than just the surface, material one. It is beyond the remit of this document to go into great depth about the economic and educational hardships experienced by many of our ethnic  communities, but suffice to say that these material hardships, coupled with a lack of opportunity to engage with cultural pursuits (other than those of their own ethnic cultures) can contribute to a feeling of disassociation with the community at large.

HOW DO THE ARTS CONTRIBUTE TO A SENSE OF “WORTH”?

We in the West place a great emphasis on individual expression and creativity. To express oneself through art of some sort is central to our sense of identity and who we really are, as opposed to who we are bought up to be. Artists, writers and musicians  are respected, valued and their contribution to society is credible and has a deep, long lasting impact.

To be “heard” as an artist is to be “seen” by society. It is to be given some respect and validity in the community. Also, to be seen to excel at something is another indicator of “worth”. Many young are encouraged to excel at sports, and initiatives that are  focussed on building team work and communication often use sport as a way of facilitating these skills.

But what about those, especially young people, who are not sports orientated? They  too need to find a way to express themselves, something to excel at and to be  appreciated for. It has been our experience that once an individual finds that he or she has “worth”, the person is more likely to want to share that sense of worth with others in their community and thereby will look for opportunities to help other people discover their sense of “worth” too.

It would be of great interest to conduct a study into how many people from such  communities go to art galleries, concerts, museums, read “literature” and take part in widespread cultural pursuits, and if they do not, why not?  Is it that the arts are not valued in the culture of their ancestral homelands? If so, we have to educate them as  to why the arts ARE valued in the West. Is it because there are religious prohibitions  against certain arts, as in the contentious issue of music in Islam? If so, we must find  ways to make music more acceptable to those communities, perhaps by pointing out


The positive effects of music, rather than the often negative influence of popular styles of music on the young. It has been shown that learning a musical instrument increases the power of concentration, helps to develop the skills of memorisation and making  music in the company of others contributes to a feeling of well being, as well as helping  to build communication and team-work skills.

It is clear that encouraging people from ethnic communities (young and old) to learn about, experience and take part in the Western Cultural tradition as expressed in our arts and music, is vital to fostering a sense of belonging to wider society. It is not  enough to teach young people in schools about important composers and the various historical musical epochs. We must encourage those who come from communities  where the arts are not valued, to express themselves through the arts, to take part in them, to contribute something of themselves, perhaps even to “give” their own insights  into their lives and experiences and to therefore enrich their own cultural lives.

There are also certain groups within these ethnic communities for whom opportunities are perceived as being inhibited by their own culture. Women and young people often find that the chance to express themselves in an artistic way allows them a freedom not previously denied them, and adds to a sense of self worth.

The arts also encourage a broadening of one’s horizons, and the ability to use one’s  imagination, to speculate on the “what if” and to engender a questioning attitude towards society and one’s place in it. In terms of addressing facets of cultural, religious political indoctrination the arts have a powerful role to play in changing attitudes. The impact of music and the arts as a motivator and meeting point for like minds can be seen in movements aimed at social change, and in the oft cited observation that in totalitarian societies (be they politically or theologically totalitarian) artists, writers, poets and musicians are treated as threats to the state, such is their organisational power and ability to influence the public.

MUSIC AND BONDING

There is no doubt that taking part in musical activities, be it attending concerts or actually playing an instrument, has a powerful and palpable effect on the people taking part. Be it high falutin’ classical music or urban hip hop, people who share musical tastes tend to be from the same social class, educational background and share similar world views. This bonding over music tastes can be a very powerful force for cohesion if addressed in a manner that isn’t patronising or preachy. And the way to avoid being  patronising and preachy is to get the people concerned involved in making music.

Music sub-cultures amongst young people have long been an area of study by both  musicologists and sociologists. They have found that fans of music, and young people especially, often express their feelings of alienation, outsider-ness and old fashioned rebellion by sharing a like for a certain style of music along with it’s style of clothes, language, behaviour and general world view. Young people who belong to such sub-cultural groups (Goths, gangster rappers, grime MC’s) bond with each other over lyrical content that expresses the lives that they feel they are leading at that moment and they identify with the values expressed by the music.

The music industry has known how to exploit this and magazines, web sites, radio  shows and movies that target specific youth audiences all express the same viewpoints  associated with the particular musical sub-culture that the makers are trying to reach. It would be advisable to look into the methods used by the industry as a model of delivery for a more positive, inclusive message.

Our experience as music makers, music educators and music facilitators has led us to the conclusion that if young people find a way to be “heard” and “seen”, in the long term it can help to dissipate their feelings of not belonging and alienation because it gives them the sense that they are being taken seriously, and therefore feelings of frustration are lessened. We would say that this is true of the arts generally, but as many arts are a solitary pursuit up to the point at which the artefact is open to the  public (the publishing of a book, or an exhibition of paintings) music is more often than not a pursuit that takes place with other people (be it in a band, or a “workshop”  leading to a performance) and therefore the impact is relatively immediate.

 

FAITH AND THE ARTS

As we have pointed out earlier, in some cultures all artistic endeavour is rooted, motivated and policed in a religious framework (as was the case in the West up until the Enlightenment) and this can be problematic when encouraging people from these communities to engage with the arts. However, the people from these communities are  here to stay and they form a vital part of the make-up and ‘wealth” of our nation. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to educate and inform them as to the beneficialinfluence that the arts play in the well being of a civil society.

This is a long-term view and one that will need input from educational professionals, arts organisations, and progressive theological thinkers who can influence opinion in their communities. But once the dialogue on progressive thinking has been opened we must ensure that suitable avenues for communities to engage are available, and that will mean financial capacity, innovative projects that capture people’s imagination, educational resources and working in close partnership with local faith organisations (and local authorities) in order to encourage participation.

It is not enough to hold melas and diwali or eid festivals. Communities must be encouraged to share their artistic expressions with each other rather than just with  those who share the same beliefs. Community festivals that place an emphasis on diverse people’s coming together in celebration of each other will contribute more to a sense of valuing other people rather than events which reinforce a particular communities traditions.

Faith leaders can play a valuable part in this by taking part in cross-faith events that explore other people’s traditions and thereby educate their own communities. An  acceptance of the pluralistic nature of civil society is to be encouraged and those  progressive thinkers who are in leadership roles should be encouraged to come forward and shape opinion in their communities. This would need the long-term co-operation of local government, grass roots organisations and those with experience in developing and delivering capacity building.

Also, local organisations and community groups can engage women and young people in such events. Although we as an organisation are particularly geared towards music we would eventually like to develop into a wider arts based delivery partner. We would encourage writing, painting and theatre as meaningful ways for communities to express their experiences and therefore contribute to the cultural wealth of society.​

Faith schools should also be encouraged to take a liberal, progressive view of the arts, and the Western cultural tradition in all it’s forms. How literature, music appreciation,  art history and various other elements of artistic pursuit are delivered in faith schools  should be looked at closely. In order to engage, young people should know that it is  acceptable in one’s community to engage, and it should be made clear that in a  modern, progressive, pluralistic society to engage in an avenue of free expression is ​
not only acceptable, but is to be encouraged.

CASE STUDY :

INTER-FAITH CO-OPERATION WITH THE ARTS AT A GRASS ROOTS LEVEL : THE BERAKAH PROJECT


The Berakah Project was founded in 2005 with the express intention of bringing people  of different communities together by holding music-based events. Both the musicians  and the management committee are made up of people from Jewish, Christian and  Muslim faith heritage, as historically and theologically, those faith traditions have  shared roots. It was also felt that in modern times relations between those three  groups have been strained due to various political situations, and that a group of  people from those backgrounds to be seen to be working closely together and creating  music with each other, would send out a powerful message to society at large.

We also clearly state that in a modern, pluralistic culture the desire to live in a harmonious, civil society is not the sole claim of those with faith.Therefore, the members of Berakah’s organisation practice their faith to greater or lesser degrees, but all agree that a civil society allows us to choose how much, or how little, we observe  the faith traditions we were bought up in.​

Berakah has been working closely with community and faith groups in two ways:

We have held a series of concerts in places of worship, drawing audiences from all sectors of the community. For instance, in 2006 and 2007 we played at a synagogue in NW London. In both cases, the audience was made up of people of all faiths, including a significant number of Muslims, many of which had never been to a synagogue before. During the 2006 concert, the rabbi opened his office to some Muslim audience members so that they could hold their evening prayers. During an Arts Council funded tour of England in 2007 Berakah made a point of playing in churches, including one in Bolton where again, significant numbers of the local Muslim community were in attendance. The barriers within the Muslim community in particular are more to do with the attitude towards music within Islam, based on interpretive theology, and this is something that will change over time, on a generational basis, rather than overnight. However, encouraging and enabling progressive thinkers within the Muslim community to act as leaders, opinion makers and role models will greatly facilitate this evolution.

 

All the concerts that were part of that tour were organised with the help of local faith organisations, including the Bolton Inter faith Council, The Liverpool Multi-Faith Forum and Luton Council Of Faiths. Berakah worked closely with all the local partners during the planning stages, a significant number of which had no previous


experience in planning or holding music based events. Berakah’s skills, expertise and experience ensured that, in the cases where our advice was closely followed, the concerts were a great success, drawing audiences from all sectors of the local community. In the case of our Holocaust Memorial Day concert in Oldham, a survivor of the concentration camps attended the event.

 

In early 2007 Berakah held a number of workshops with three schools in NW London, including pupils from a Muslim madrassa in Wembley. At the end of term students from all three schools performed a concert attended by parents, teachers, governors and members of the press. The pupils came from all faith backgrounds (not just Muslim, Christian or Jewish) and the response from teachers, parents and pupils was overwhelmingly positive. Berakah are currently talking to schools in Leicester, Oldham and Southall about similar workshop/performances. In Southall we will be working with pupils who for the most part are new to this country (refugees and non English speakers) and engaging them through musical pursuits is seen as a vital way of increasing their confidence and self-image, and ultimately enabling them to feel like valued members of society.

The model of delivery that we have devised has shown that for young pupils to see people of different cultures and faiths working closely with each other is a powerful factor in “broadening horizons” and it’s broad horizons that we should be encouraging.

During the workshops we did not overly dwell on the philosophical ethos that we have as an organisation. We found that the young people picked this message up quite quickly with very little prompting, and in fact the Muslim children names the musical piece that they devised “ Open Minded”. Further work with the young people at this school showed that the perception that their community is views as problematic by certain aspects of the wider public was forefront in their minds and was shaping their behaviours. What they really wanted to highlight in their work was their desire to be seen as normal, and the positive contributions their community makes to the nation

IN CONCLUSION

Music is recognised as a unique way to build bridges and spread a sense of bonding, as well as a powerful motivator in social change. Tellingly, although there are various Inter  Faith organisations and forums, and many multi-cultural bands, there are no projects quite like Berakah, working within the arts and music specifically. Berakah’s board and group contain members of the following faiths: Jewish, Christian and Muslim, all of  whom have provided input in the ethos, aims and planning of this project and are committed to the work therein.

Berakah has built up a network of contacts from all faiths who are committed to promoting respect, acceptance of differences and explorations of common or shared origins, and at a time when so called Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are prevalent both in the media and on the street we have shown that given the opportunity and the resources, people of different communities recognise the need to come together and conceive, plan and enjoy events that promote the concept of mutual respect and co-existence. The results of such work are by their very nature qualitative rather than quantitative, but the potential for deep impact is very real, and a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to address all the issues.

Leave a Reply