Art and peace series
Music is the dialogue
– An interview with Darren Ferguson
“My identity and my history are defined only by myself – beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and Beyond Skin.”
Darren Ferguson, is a musician, a community worker, and a peace activist. He founded Beyond Skin in 2004 to tackle racism and sectarianism at a local level, to encourage positive social change and empowering people to celebrate diversity.
Beyond Skin is a diverse team of artists, facilitators and peacebuilders who design and facilitate different creative projects using intercultural music, arts, dance, digital media and sensory engagement.
Beyond Skin has been using artistic methods for global education and peacebuilding with local councils, education boards, schools, community groups, businesses and social enterprises across Northern Ireland and has been collaborating with different organisations and individual internationally.
This year Beyond Skin will deliver 35 different projects active involving people from 23 different countries. To name a few: Orchestra for change, Peace in Mind – The 100, Youth4peace, Blueprint are some of the projects which connect local artists and communities with artists and organisations in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Japan, Zambia & Kenya.
The interview was conducted by Stefania Gualberti.
Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in music and peacebuilding?
Darren – I was influenced by a lot of things I was doing as a community worker. In my youth I was volunteering for different faith groups, and I volunteered to go to Romania and worked for a couple of projects which ended up lasting over a decade and set up a charity there with various other people. I was influenced by both the community sector but also by popular culture. Musicians like Peter Gabriel, who was using music for speaking out about human rights and also Nitin Sawhney, a British born Asian artist – we took our name Beyond Skin from one of his albums Beyond Skin. There was another project called “1 giant leap” with these two music producers who travelled the world to try to find out what connects us all as human beings and used music as their narrative. Those three different projects really influenced me as well as popular culture, and as a community worker I just loved being around people and I got involved that way.
Stefania – What do you feel is special about art and especially music to transform conflict, connect and build peace?
Darren – I’m always learning from other people, every day. A good friend of mine Mark Smulian who did amazing thing with music bringing young people from Israel and Palestine together and is doing lots of things with music for mental health, he reminds me constantly that we are all creative, everyone is creative. Some people have talents such as someone can sing, others are really good dancers. We are all creative. Those of us who are blessed with legs doesn’t mean we are Usain Bolt. Some people have talent, and they can run really fast.
People are creative beings, it’s innate in us, it’s in our DNA. We can also clap together in time randomly, no other creature on earth can do that.
We are creative and we are designed to work together. We have all seen the power of music, especially during COVID time, it got everybody through this traumatic experience. When you see the impact of music and other art forms it makes it obvious to connect it into peace building and community work, why wouldn’t you?
I get invited to a lot of peace conference, peace events and they don’t lead themselves in a way that we function best as human beings. Human beings function at their very best around music, art, green spaces, food, and drink. When we are together in these spaces, we create things, things will come out and we have great time building relationships, relating with one another. When you are in four walls in a hotel room for a conference you don’t have that, it doesn’t have that big impact.
I think we have got to look at how we interact and relate as human beings and integrate that more into peacebuilding.
We tend to think of arts and culture as something you go to: you go to the theatre, to the cinema and so on. But when you wake up in the morning art and creativity is in everything. What we choose to wear in the morning is being creative, we create when we cook, and we are creative when we navigate life challenges, how we deal with things. It’s in us and that should be brought more into peacebuilding so people can relate to that more.
Stefania – How do you overcome the barriers in groups especially people who would not consider themselves as musicians or knowledgeable about music?
Darren – At Beyond Skin we try to engage people into music and sound. Sound is very important in how we relate to our environment; it is all around us. A great example is a project we did for Make Music Day4’33. It is based on a famous, very experimental composer called John Cage who is no longer with us. He composed 4’33”, a piece where musicians don’t play anything for 4 minutes 33 seconds and he copy righted. We are replicating that project in collaboration with the John Cage Trust, and we asked 23 musicians from different places in the world to send us videos of themselves not playing anything for 4 minutes 33 seconds and we put a compilation together. https://www.beyondskin.net/433
His thought process as composer was that there is always sound. As I am talking to you, I can hear the fridge buzzing, I can hear birds outside, I can hear traffic from the motorway. That is a composition. When we hear the musician from Sri Lanka you can hear the sounds from the environment there. In the piece from the Victoria Falls in Zambia, you can hear the water in the background. Sounds and music are often separated but they are so connected. If you look at Belfast, in West Belfast you have big diesel black taxis which service that area. That is a sound familiar only with that area, you have always that sound on the background and people do not realize that, but when they wake up in the morning they know where they are when they hear that sound. If you were to take those taxis away people would miss that sound and feel maybe a slight unease, as it wouldn’t sound as their environment.
All those elements are important when we interact music and sound. What makes us feel safe and how we step out of our comfort zone and meet people from different cultures and engage with them because, it is all relevant to all of us as human being. How do we engage people with sound? The 4’33” is a great example of that, and everyone can take part, you don’t have to play an instrument.
It is a mindfulness exercise as well, so important coming out of this pandemic which affected everyone in our mental health, if people say they were not affected they are lying. Sound and music give a great opportunity to be mindful, be still and focus on sound. How our brain respond to music is a chemical reaction and the benefits are widely researched.
Inner peace, once you have inner peace you can bring peace into the world. It is that simple, we have to be at peace with ourselves and with our neighbours and then extend to the wider world. The different levels are very much related.
Stefania – How do you think the creative process can help healing trauma at both individual and collective levels?
Darren – It has been well documented, especially in the last few years with the neuroscience research, the impact of sound and music in the healing process.
We work with people who live in countries experiencing violent conflict. Music is a good way to process what might have happened to you. Not to put it away, as it will always be there, but to help move on. We all have this music centre in our brain, it is a chemical reaction, which trigger us, music can be used to deal with trauma in a certain way. It works both way for the people creating and playing the music and for the people listening to it. Art is a very personal experience. When you look at an art gallery you could have someone sticking a bit of tape on the wall and that’s considered art, or somebody could consider the Mona Lisa art, but in my opinion, it is all art. That’s the beauty of art. It is not about being good, that’s subjective.
I think art can have purpose and no purpose. Art is about freedom and expression. Sometimes we forget that. Some of the peacebuilding projects which involve art limit people. I have done a lot of research on social media and YouTube and I have done a presentation on how we make peace infectious. You look at YouTube and there might be a well-done video on the issues of refugees, and it might have 2 million views. Then there is a video of a cat in a bath, and it got 80 million views and you go: “how is that more attractive to people?” We are obviously missing something of what attracts people to things and why that is. I believe the peacebuilding sector needs to look at popular culture to bring new people into those spaces and attract new people.
At Beyond Skin we have always done wacky things. An example is one day I noticed there were all these pop-up stands and people sitting behind tables presenting themselves at events, why would we do that? So, we decided to retire our pop-up stand. We had an official photographer to do a story for us, in a very humorous way but also as a way of challenging the sector in a creative way. If you want to do something as an organisation, association or collective, you don’t need a pop-up stand, just do it. Instead of sitting behind a table, sit in front of it, speak to people. You are the pop-up stand; you are the story you don’t need a pop up stand. It was a way to give people a wee shake and look at why we do things? How we do things, and do they work? Why things like the pop-up stand become normal? We love to challenge the status quo in a creative way.
Stefania – How do you work with people who reject certain music as ‘theirs’ rather than ‘mine’?
Darren – Yes, interesting question as here in Northern Ireland music has divided communities. We have a project at the moment with people part of a marching band from Protestant culture working alongside heavy metal rock musicians. We always bring it back to the music.
We did an event at the Black Box- a music venue in Belfast- and we had three Loyalist marching bands (all men) and we had guest musicians from Colombia and female musicians, as it can be very male dominated sector. We did it and it was great. We got great feedback and one guy came to me and said: “It is great what you have done here” and I responded, “What is so great about bringing musicians together into a music venue?” Sometimes the politics take over. Those were just some guys learning to play, read music, the band gave them a place where they felt they belonged and gave them the space to be creative. That’s overlooked.
In the new project we are creating a heavy metal flute marching band. That is to open up to audiences who might have not listened to that kind of music and going beyond the stereotypes. Music is a great way to do that, connect people. https://www.beyondskin.net/marchingmetal
We did another project with Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, and it opened up to people who said “I have never listened to that music” but through these projects they have been introduced to this other music and I find this interesting.
As my friend Mark would say “Music does not assist the dialogue, music is the dialogue”. Getting people together to do art and play music is a way of building relation and relax to talk about their culture. In some peacebuilding events you bring people together, strangers, and they are encouraged to talk about the issues. You would not do that in real life, why would you do it there. You need to build up trust and relationship.
At Beyond Skin we need to justify it with the funders that we are doing it in a different way, but this is more effective. Sometimes peacebuilding can get very boring! I have been to many boring peacebuilding events. Why are we here? I could be doing something much more interesting, fun and get people to talk about serious issues as well.
I was in Japan before the pandemic last year and I was at an event organised by this organisation who is doing music and peacebuilding. They are the largest music peacebuilding organisation, they are called Min-on Concert Association, they have been going on for 40 years and they have one million volunteers. How do we get one million volunteers? How do you sustain that? I had a meeting with the founders to talk about how they did that. I could see their smile the joy was apparent. I thought, whatever you have, I want that and that is what is really attractive. I had been at a antiracism event where lots of people were really angry and they were right to be angry but I left feeling angry. I don’t want that, that is not attractive, no wonder they struggle to get members. In this association, you have people with smiles on their faces, they are well aware of the problems of the world and they say: let’s deal with that!
There is nothing fun about racism and sectarianism but there is a way to use fun and joy to deal with those issues by engaging people in dialogue. We have to find ways to attract people (the cat in a bath).
Stefania – How can global education help tackle racism and sectarianism locally?
Darren – Before Beyond skin I worked with developing organisations who worked with countries struggling with poverty and in global education programmes. The project “1 giant leap” looked at issues that connect us, love, faith, death, sex, money… all the subjects that relate with all of us.
One of the big issues at the moment is health as well as gender inequality. I have a four year old girl and I am thinking about her future and what she will be dealing with, we should have tackled those issues years ago (pay gap, accessibility and patriarchy).
Global education for me is listening and learning from our global neighbours. When the pandemic hit, we contacted our friends in Africa, they always had restrictions and always have done with less than we have. So, we asked how are you doing it? We should be doing the same. Learning from them. Our partners in Zambia are well ahead of us in terms of renewable energies, they are doing tremendous stuff! It is important to learn from our global neighbours.
Stefania – Is there a particular project or engagement that stands out for you that you can talk about in relation to this conversation on art and peacebuilding?
Darren – Not one particular project. We did a conference in a very different way as we left 50% of it unprogrammed, a space for what was emerging. It was March 2017 and it is difficult to describe, it was powerful. At that event my friend Mark got up to the stage saying, “Music does not assist dialogue, music is the dialogue.” We got into this discussion on how the funding can be restrictive and put you in a box. A lot of artists felt like that. If you are from Africa that doesn’t mean you need to do drumming; you like jazz, do jazz. Don’t let people put you in a box, be creative. That opens the door for us. A big initiative called Art Dialogue was born out of that. 30 artists collaborate together from different countries in very creative and innovative ways. That conference was one of those moments of realization, we need to be freeing artists and not being restricted/restrictive. Freedom in art to make a difference; freedom from labels, expectations and stereotypes and bringing fun and joy into the process.
We get invited to help organise multicultural festivals. I ask, what is the difference between a festival and a multicultural festival? Just mainstream it and call it festival so it becomes normal to have a diversity of people collaborating in it. When I hear Chinese people called minority when they are in fact a global majority, I think we need to change perspective, from our inward perspective. Let us focus on our language, what is a minority? What are we saying? It gives a distorted perception of reality. I think with art you can “shake the tree”, challenge people and wake them up a little bit.
Stefania – Could you share or summarise some of your learnings in your years of experience?
Darren – Every day is a school day, every day I am learning. There are no experts in peacebuilding. Peace is a process, a process of learning.
Get people together around food, music, art and green spaces and things happen.
Take risks, we constantly say let’s do this and deal later with the consequences.
Understand where people are coming from, you don’t know what they are going through. We have to be really empathetic with our fellow humans. We can’t judge people from what we see, as we don’t have the full picture -social media doesn’t help as it is very reactive, you wouldn’t do that to somebody in person, we need to bring back people to human interactions.
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Raytheon in Derry
June 2021 StoP webinar report
by Eamon Rafter
The webinar was organised by StoP – Swords to Ploughshares, a new Irish network against the Arms Trade. With Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast grant aided by the UK government to manufacture military drones and their continued support for arms production at Thales, it was decided that it was a good time to get together to celebrate the removal of Raytheon from Derry to inspire resistance to current development in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The webinar was introduced and moderated by Joe Murray of AFRI. He spoke about how he saw a picture of John Hume and David Trimble welcoming Raytheon to Derry in 1999 as the ‘first fruits of the peace process’. The shocking irony of this had inspired him to hold a public meeting in Derry along with Children in Cross fire and this included students from East Timor at a time when weapons from the UK were being sold to the Indonesian military for use in East Timor. Out of this meeting FEIC – Foyle Ethical Investment Campaign was founded who along with Derry Ant-War Coalition (DAWC) and others built the campaign against Raytheon.
Jim Keys was one of the people behind the FEIC campaign and he gave an overview of how this cross community group with no party affiliation operated as a loose alliance who took on Raytheon. Following the AFRI meeting they had worked on an East Timor mural and set up a citizens jury to consider the appropriateness of Raytheon coming the Derry. The jury returned a verdict of ‘not welcome’ and a monthly vigil was established outside the Raytheon offices. A symbolic grave was dug here to mark the innocent victims of the weapons industry and signs around the city, the appearance of the theatrical ‘stealth monster’ and various actions took place which included the use of the Free Derry wall.
Politicians didn’t engage though in 2003 the City Council did oppose the war in Iraq. Raytheon did not engage or make a response to any of this, though they claimed that the Derry operation was essentially a civil one. Jim pointed out that Derry was a place where people understood what it was like to be ‘collateral damage’ and this was important in the development of the campaign. With a vigil in the Guildhall Sq, a shroud covering the Free Derry Wall and the Black Shamrock symbol of Irish neutrality and opposition to war, the campaign broadened across the city and in Feb 2008 a plaque was placed on the city walls dedicated to lives lost as a result of weapons made in Derry. Though the campaign would continue with regular vigils it would take a more public action to have greater effect.
Eamonn McCann, who had been a key leader in the civil rights movement, was one of the six of the Raytheon 9 who stood trial for occupying the Raytheon offices in August 2006. He talked about what had led to the occupation and how they were vindicated in court. A meeting of DAWC had taken place in Sandino’s Bar on 2nd August to hear former U.S. army interrogator Joshua Casteel. Hearing about the recent Israeli massacre in Qana, Lebanon on 30th July, the Raytheon connection was made and it was decided to occupy the plant.
It was felt that everything had been tried to engage the politicians and media and that vigils would not be enough to close down Raytheon. There had been no support from the mainstream who said they were against weapons manufacture but did nothing against it. The occupation of 9th August (the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing) was a last resort and McCann talked about the ‘semi-spontaneity’ of the event. They didn’t expect to get in but had managed to rush the door as an employee went in and once inside proceeded to throw computers and materials out the window. The eventual arrival of riot police in full armour saw nine men seated quietly playing cards and they were arrested and subsequently put on trial.
Eamonn Mc Cann talked about the case that was presented at that trial in 2008 and how the six men were acquitted. The case was based on the fact that the law would not see their action as defensible, so they had to show that they were actually trying to save lives, stop or delay a war crime, not just protest against it. They had to show that they had previously done everything that was possible and only after that failed did they commit to action in the reasonable belief they could stop war. The involvement of the Derry Raytheon plant in the development of rocket guidance systems and interconnectedness of the computer system with the Scotland plant meant they had legitimately targeted this to put the system out of action to help prevent a greater evil. In effect they put Raytheon on trial and their defence was McCann claimed ‘unassailable’. This gave it a certain international resonance and he felt that the Derry action had a real effect on the morale of victims in Qana, who they later went to visit.
He said it was the best thing he ever did and that it is never futile to stand up against war, even though you think it won’t achieve anything. The accumulation of actions, protests and messaging had been important so it was not a one off event. The trial victory was the pay-off for many previous events. It was important that the occupation was not over-planned and had some element of spontaneity. Neither was it just about the ‘burly men’ who were arrested, as women had been hugely involved. He said it was essential ‘to do everything patiently, but not to be afraid to be daring when the moment comes’. You need to wait and be alert for that moment.
Goretti Horgan was one of the nine women who entered the Raytheon offices in a third occupation in 2009. She spoke about being motivated by the Shannon 5 who had earlier attacked a US military aircraft in Shannon Airport and been through a long trial at which they were acquitted. Goretti had been present at the second occupation though at the time left before the arrival of the police to avoid being arrested. She emphasised that women had always been involved in the protests and actions and that Israeli bombings of Gaza had also been an influence on the women’s occupation. The precision guidance systems used in the Israeli attack were developed by Raytheon.
The women’s occupation may not have done as much damage as the men’s but it had stopped the plant functioning and kept the opposition to Raytheon going which was important. This time the main frame computer had been encased in steel so water couldn’t damage it. She said it was an educational process where they learnt a lot about the arrogance and lies of the arms industry. The sheer horror of the weapons they manufactured was shocking and it was hard to conceive how people thought them up in the first place. ‘We have to do whatever we can to end this evil trade for once and for all’ she said. The women were also put under trial and acquitted.
There was some discussion at the end of the session and some conclusions were drawn. Protests had never stopped after the trials and Raytheon eventually announced their departure in January 2010. They denied this had anything to do with the protests but under Freedom of Information it was revealed that they had said they couldn’t stay because the legal system could not guarantee their safety. It was mentioned that global solidarity is important and the protests at Raytheon in Tucson, U.S., had taken inspiration from what happened in Derry.
It is essential to know your rights and work together to get rid of the arms trade. We need to draw on victories like the one in Derry to give us momentum, just as the Dunnes Stores strikes against South African apartheid and solidarity with East Timor had had an effect. A new phase of protest would now be required to oppose recent arms contracts in Belfast and extractive industries. Derry activists were ready to be involved again and this time would make connections with climate change and what arms trade does to the environment.