MUSIC Coming in with a bang

The rhythms of drum ensembles put together in a Barbican project are bringing down social barriers in East End schools - so successfully that now the project is going it alone

In the middle of the first sunny Saturday afternoon of the summer in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, as hundreds of families are enjoying the annual Walthamstow Garden Party, a sound quake rips through the balmy air, announcing the arrival of Drum Works with an irresistible torrent of drumming.

The 120 young performers have no music, they know their set as the rhythms lilt and swerve, under the direction of a bearded dancing man who controls the piece with a series of gestures and body swerves.

Those gestures are the players’ score, and their eyes are glued to him as hands swoop in the “Flying Lotus”, he makes the shape of a donkey as “Pedro” or he circles one eye with his fingers to make “Cyclops”, all different drumming arrangements.

The bearded man is Jo Wills, composer, musician, youth leader and social worker, who is the co-founder with Ross McDouall of Drum Works and the four or five bands that have sprung from their brainchild.

The performance was the climax of the Drum Works year, the drummers coming together for it for the first time from five different East End secondary schools.

That Saturday afternoon’s show also marked the end of the ensembles’ dependency, because in September, nine years after Drum Works was created on behalf of the Barbican Centre as part of its mission to bring music to the East London boroughs, the organisation is going independent.

“We have been subsidised through the Barbican’s outreach programme” says managing director (and drummer) Jenny Beer, “but we have grown, and we have been expanding away from our subsidised status. We’re moving it forward – we’re half way through a Youth Music programme, we have corporate money from Investec and we’re applying to the Arts Council for an Ambition for Excellence Fund grant, because we need to expand.”

Drum Works began when Wills and McDouall, two Guildhall School of Music graduates with new masters degrees in leadership, were asked by the Barbican to work with a Brazilian Afro Reggae group on a short samba project with an east London school, as part of the Barbican/Guildhall School of Music and Drama creative learning programme. “But samba didn’t have any resonance here for the kids” Wills says. “Their music was more rooted in hip-hop, grime, so we had a few honest conversations with a group of about 20 of them and that got us into writing our own music, a different style of playing in a creative drumming folk tradition. And the people took joint ownership”.

There are six schools in the scheme, one of them for deaf children which is not yet ready for a major public performance. But each of the schools has its own beats that they commit to memory and perform regularly.

Anyone can drum, and that is central to Drum Works. “You can take any group of people who’ve never done it before and they can be up and playing in the first five minutes” Wills – a double bass player by training - says. Many of the participants have problem backgrounds, have short attention spans and are used to being in trouble. “Once we get them in, we get them moving and try to get them composing their own music as soon as possible, so that once they’re starting to have a good time we can move on to techniques and so on”.

It’s hard to say how many young people have been through the programme, but there are 450 currently involved. No-one is obliged to leave when they leave school and often,once they’ve started work they take part at weekends or during holidays from university. Some join the senior bands, Drum Heads and Drum Heads Training Band.

Some join the training team – there are three leaders including Wills and McDouall, four teachers – all professional musicians – and 15 assistants who started as band members. For an event like the Walthamstow Garden Party the combined bands are also joined by the adult enthusiasts of Drum Club, another part of the Barbican set-up. Three of the Drum Works drummers are now studying music at the Guildhall themselves, a direct result of their involvement with the ensemble.

Drum Works has created its own show, Unleashed, which ran for three nights in the Barbican Theatre, and it has been part of the Hofesh Schecter and Antony Gormley show Survivor. And with independence it is set to be- come a fully fledged associated artist of the Barbican.

There are already experiments with Drum Works projects elsewhere. Wills and McDouall are working with the Sage Gateshead, and in Athens the opera house is keen to emulate their work. Drum Works members have made trips to Johannesburg where a similar project is using the assistants as mentors for their own fledgling operation.

A 14-year-old recruited two years ago, from the Warren School in Barking, is a typical example of a Drum Works player. He had been expelled from primary school and regularly excluded at secondary school. He had anger issues and a very unhappy home life. He was persuaded to join Drum Works. “Now he’s coming to school” says Wills, “he has found ways to work with us, he thinks positively about himself, he’s part of a group now and there’s been an individual impact on him.

“We build environments where people from totally different backgrounds can create things together, crossing boundaries all the time – Muslim girls, black boys, the whole of East London society is there doing things together” he says. “I would like to think of our society and communi- ties in that way rather than people just thinking about themselves, because you can’t get angry with each other when you’re making stuff together.”

“We would like to expand the number of schools, but we must be careful not to grow too quickly” says Beer. As managing director she is responsible for organising funding, finding sponsorship, the complex and expensive logistics of getting band members and all their kit from one point to another. So she will have to find a deputy and also the means to fund both their salaries for which the Barbican ceased to be responsible at the end of August.

The Barbican will continue to give Drum Works rehearsal and storage space. “Building a sustainable busi- ness model for the programme will enable us to realise our vision of expanding our reach and working with an ever growing community of young people” Beer says. “Our partnership with the Barbican Centre and Guildhall School puts Drum Works in a very strong position for the next phase of our development. The next couple of years will be difficult, but I’ve no doubt that we will make it.”

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