The Gert and friends: Transforming lives with a co-creative approach
How can arts and culture transform lives? How can arts and culture impact communities? What does good co-creation mean or look like?
Check out EastSide Arts' project ‘The Gert and Friends’ for the perfect example of how to answer these questions with style! The project involved bandsmen and women from a local flute band ‘The Gertrude Star’ joining together in two teams. The men worked with professional musicians Chip Bailey and Matt McGinn to create a variety of new songs. The women joined together in a choir under the direction of professional choir director, Una McCann. Both groups then came together to perform a public concert at The MAC Belfast as a culmination of the project. I chatted to Aimee Consiglia Conway, Community Engagement Officer from Eastside Arts, to find out how they did it:
What’s the background?
Belfast City Council had conducted research that showed that grant applications from Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists (PUL) locations and communities were far lower than other categorised areas. This led to the creation of a micro and macro grant for organisations working within PUL communities and areas, with A City Imagining funding. Eastside Arts applied for a two-strand programme, which ran through the Heritage Connections Project and the Music and Identity Cultural Exploration Project.
What was the project about?
The Music and Identity Cultural Exploration project ran from July 2021 to March 2022 and was called ‘The Gert and Friends’. The aim of the project was to showcase unionist bandsmen as real, talented musicians and challenge perceptions of what the band culture is like. Eastside Arts aimed to prove that being involved in bands does not mean that you are a lesser artist or musician. They also wanted to spotlight the community focus which exists within these bands. There is such a strong sense of family, community and heritage entwined within the structure of bands in Northern Ireland.
The project allowed members of the bands to showcase their skills and express themselves in a positive way. It challenged patriarchal structures within the bands by platforming the women involved in the community and providing them with an active, participatory role in the project, with as much focus as the men. This encouraged the women usually only involved in the background life of the bands to move out of a supporting role and become a firm part of the action, through the women’s choir.
What did you hope to achieve from the project?
We wanted to break down negative perceptions of what people in bands were capable of. Another aspect of the project we wanted to work on was that people living within these communities often feel that the arts are not for them and that it only exists for middle-class groups. We wanted to work directly with these communities to address this and come up with creative ways to link their personal culture and ‘the arts’ together so they could see themselves represented in the sector.
The Women's choir. [Image description: A group of women are standing in two lines over small stairs. They're all smiling and facing the camera. There's a large mirror behind them.]
What were the challenges of the project?
We had some teething problems with this project at the beginning! The initial issue was that the band didn’t have real trust in the partnership. We had worked with them previously, so had a relationship with them, but there was work to do before we could begin properly. There was a weariness about artist-led work taking them out of their comfort zone. We worked on that issue for months! My father was a bandsman, so I had a personal understanding of the culture. This was helpful and I’m not sure that the project would have worked the same without it – it really helped inspire trust. My background also helped me to challenge the participants, when necessary, which I don’t think I could have done if I hadn’t had the cultural understanding.
Cross Community Aspect
Another thing to note for this project was that we accidentally created a cross-community challenge to address at the very beginning! Chip Bailey is English, Matt McGinn is from a Catholic community and Una McCann, our women’s choir director, is from the Republic of Ireland. We were working directly with the PUL community but had brought in a variety of artists with no lived experience of the PUL culture to help lead the project. As part of the trust process, we invited everyone we wanted to be involved together to meet for a drink with our professionals to talk openly and get to know each other. All of us talked about the project and what we wanted it to look like. The bands had a suspicion that these folks may have an ulterior motive or prejudices to being involved, which was a concern to them. Matt, Chip and Una all opened up and spoke honestly with the participants about their motivation to take part. The participants then had the opportunity to explain how they felt and resolve any potential hesitation they had towards working with the professionals. These conversations helped dispel any lingering trust issues and established an instant connection with the group.
Engagement was another slight challenge. For the women’s choir, there was an open call, released to the community and led by the band. There was a bit of a difficulty in describing the project and using the right language to entice local women to sign up. The women we initially talked to didn’t really see themselves as being capable or confident enough to try it. There was a general lack of confidence: ‘I can’t sing, this is all so embarrassing.’ It took a lot of work and encouragement from Una to convince them this wasn’t the case through trust-building with the group. By the end of this project, the women involved knew they had plenty of talent too!
We started working on the project in July. By October, we were still having expressions of distrust from the community. When January arrived and we began planning the live gig happening in the MAC, the participants started to really get excited! The group didn’t want to be tucked away in a community hall, they wanted a respected arts venue to perform in, so securing the MAC was a huge win for us and for the project. It meant something to them that they were being trusted to do this, being trusted to platform their hard work and talent, on a professional stage.
How did you involve both sides?
With the professionals, we made it very clear from the outset that the project had to be fully co-designed. It had to be thematically based on what the band and community was giving them, to set the tone. We had great buy-in from the professionals on this aspect of the project. The professionals understood that this had to be very much about the people involved, not artist-led. From the band and women’s choir, we invited them to roll their sleeves up and get actively involved. We told them ‘Bring us what you know and love!’ Anytime they had a suggestion, we talked it through with them and then had more and more buy-in each time from their side. A performer came to do poetry, a piper came in to do a piece. They had full ownership of what happened at the gig.
What stood out for you about the project?
The journey of the women in the ladies’ choir stands out for me particularly. They were so much more confident by the end of the project. One member at the very start had expressed that she was deaf in one ear and loved singing but struggled to explore this while at school as she got kicked out of her school choir for singing too loudly. When she first began working with us, she was quite sarcastic and unsure, but by the end, she was so invested.
One woman who joined us was going through a tough time at home with family illness and wanted something to give her a bit of escape. At the end of the project, she said that she would never be able to express her thanks for participating. She told us that the project had helped her mental health and gave her something to do while she was going through an extremely difficult time in her life. I think this quote alone is a testament to the arts as a vehicle for change:
‘I agreed to sign up to this at a time when I was struggling and was on a waiting list for counselling and needed to do something. I remembered "singing was good for the soul" so gave it a go. Well, I have loved every minute of it and you will all never know how much being a part of this has lifted me, helped me with my anxiety and given me a focus that I needed to get through a pretty rubbish time.’
With the band, they were grateful because they felt they had been listened to. The co-writing process concluded with nine brand new tracks made with Matt McGinn and Chip throughout the project, as well as a few written previously in collaboration with Duke Special. The songs were all based on stimulus from the band, which was a new way of working. The ideas for each song were an expression of their culture, of how it feels to be them. The songs were then tweaked by the professionals and developed in tandem with them. The lyrics for one song was written by one of the friends of the women's choir and expressed perfectly how it felt to be one of these women, which was special. It was nice to see their culture presented in a different way, that could reach anyone - it was really good music no matter who you were!
The band's men, on stage with Duke Special. [Image description: The band's men are standing on stage, playing flute behind musician Duke Special who is playing piano.]
Relationship between the professionals and the participants
Matt McGinn has a new fan club now! He had done a few gigs soon after The MAC gig and about ten of the participants all went to cheer him on. Matt was using two of the tracks from the project at the gigs, so it also impacted on him. Matt spoke to the people in the gig about how he had so much in common with these people, that were now there cheering him on.
What was the impact in the local community?
Contextually there are two big bands in East Belfast: The Gertrude Star and East Belfast Protestant Boys. There is some historic rivalry between these two groups and in the past few years, there have been altercations. When we were planning the gig at the MAC, we talked about logistics: who can come, will it be ticketed, and should it be open to all? There was a bit of wariness at the beginning of these conversations. Some of the members were slightly worried that the other band would turn up, and what this would mean. In the end, about ten members of the East Belfast Protestant Boys went to the gig and spoke to a few of our members afterwards. They said they hadn’t expected much, but in the end, were really impressed and thought the gig had been brilliant and a credit to the band scene! It was a huge achievement for their rival band to openly admit the gig had gone well. Since then, The Gertrude Star chairman has presented a shield to the East Belfast Protestant Boys in recognition of their 55th anniversary. This reflects a positive change in the relationship between the two bands after the project.
The project has been received so well that it’s being remounted on the 8th of July in CS Lewis Square as part of a weekend of festivities. The band are doing all the marshalling, having a merch stand and marketing the event widely throughout their community. The impact of the project is still being felt in the local community and will continue to grow as they’re so passionate about what they’ve been involved in!
Projects like ‘The Gert and Friends’ take time, trust and buy-in from both sides of the coin. When they’re done properly and with sensitivity, they have amazing outcomes for everyone involved. This project is a wonderful example of the massive impact (and potential!) of the arts to transform local communities. Art can inspire, bring people out of their shells, and allow communities to form strong, social links together. It can also bring people together from very different backgrounds and allow us to see past our differences, to what really matters.
- From the outset, use a co-creative approach. Participants and artists work together to make core decisions before getting down to the work of creating together.
- Decide together as a full team what you want to do, and how you’re going to do it. Give everyone a voice in this process.
- It takes time to create trust with participants. Talk to them, work out what the potential issues are to overcome any problems and give everyone a space to address them sensitively.
- Give participants the space to overcome any initial wariness or hesitation by allowing participants time to change their views on their own terms.
- Trust your participants to know what they want and work with this as much as possible. The results can be incredible, as this project has so wonderfully shown!
More of this, please!