TAITMAIL Nine Elms and the musical heart of the problem
Sahana Gero’s guiding principle has been that everyone of us has music at our soul, because we’ve had a heartbeat and therefore rhythm from the start of our existence. So we each have a right to exploit that fundamental component of our make-up.
Nor is any genre transcendent: music making is universal and is valuable as a process of creativity, however unsophisticated.
Hence the title of her academy, World Heart Beat, and its mission is simply to bring music to the lives of a lost generation, progressively robbed of its birth right most recently by Covid and then teaching and music funding cuts.
The World Heart Beat Academy (WHBA) started in a Wandsworth warehouse which Gero got rent-free in exchange for some donated radiators. It opened in 2012, three years after she created a charity to found it and was teaching 75 kids a week. In January it opened its £3m new academy at Nine Elms at the river end of Wandsworth with 350 students a week.
Sahana Gero (above) had been teaching music to disadvantaged five-to-25-year-olds since graduating from Kingston University. Born and brought up in London she comes from a mixed Hungarian-Bengali background, and her instrument is principally the clarinet on which she made a niche reputation playing the work of the prolific Indian composer and poet Sri Chinmoy. She has taken her set to more than 70 countries.
A good illustration of her modus operandi is her creation almost 25 years ago of her own model of an American style big band, the 51st State Band, made up of young musicians with varying levels of accomplishment of whom no grades are required and whose only qualification expected is the will to make music. With about 130 members it is probably the biggest big band in the country now and officially part of the WHBA.
Another would be the WHBA’s Emerge programme which teaches young people who have finished with education and have no wish to go on to music college but want to make music a central part of their lives, if not their profession, but need the right instruction. And for all the academy’s courses there are bursaries available for those from low-income backgrounds.
Or the Painted Piano (main image). Last summer a piano that had been given to the academy - Gero has a knack of attracting funding and gifts - which got itself painted and, having been inaugurated by the composer Howard Blake, its teachers gave lessons on it for five summer months to anyone who turned up. About 35 did a full course, and at least one achieved grade 1 piano as a result.
The WHBA got Arts Council national portfolio status in 2017 which, although the annual grant is worth about 6% of its needs, gives it the professional standing it needs to fundraise. It got its plot in Nine Elms as a result of Section 106, the clause in the planning legislation that requires developers to set aside land for cultural amenities. The academy had to compete with 42 other Wandsworth organisations, but having got the plot (for which it pays a rent of £1 a year for 50 years) it had to raise the money for its new academy and build it during the pandemic and lockdown when it just had to appeal all the harder. A staunch supporter had been the former magazine magnate Terry Mansfield who was offering help and advice almost to the moment that he became one of Covid’s first victims in 2020.
In the pandemic, during which no-one was laid off despite there being no furlough for freelances, they got a life-saving grant from the Culture Recovery Fund, and now a levelling up grant of £700,000 which, it is calculated, will generate £11m for the local economy. “Cities, London as much as anywhere, need culture” Gero says.
Her new academy has 100-seat flexible auditorium, a video studio, a recording desk - all to the highest technical specifications - tutorial rooms, a green room for its guest performers and a café. And if the high-grade gilding, the chandeliers on the stairs and the art in the lift well seem out of place, they are a Gero signifier - “We welcome young people from all backgrounds and when they come it has to feel that they are arriving somewhere, somewhere that gives them a lift” she says.
Building 51st State was the epiphany. “It was under the radar, as most of what we do is” she says, “but we were teaching hundreds of children. We saw more need for kids to do music, we could see how music was transforming worlds even then. They came from different musical backgrounds but there are not enough venues for bands to play - if you want to play football there are plenty of spaces, but not if you want to play music. We needed to open it up a bit, and that has to be by engagement”.
And it needs the social investment of communities, from where the AWHB get its students rather from schools and other institutions.
The Section 106 award was for a permanent community project, but the Nine Elms community has mostly yet to arrive. There’s no library in the locale, no swimming pool, no gym, no playing fields, no corner shop, “yet they can come here and get music lessons, and our charity will support them if they need it". Most of the homes being built are luxury, many belonging to absentee owners, but the development has to have a proportion of affordable housing which will bring 50-60,000 residents in lower income brackets. Of the kids who have turned up since last month’s opening, about 10% are from the immediate neighbourhood.
When those families arrive in the next months, along with those ten minutes’ walk away in the new development at Battersea Power Station (though only 9% of that development will be affordable housing), they will have a concert hall providing entertainment from folk to classical to jazz to hip-hop to world music and emerging artists, new work from the composer Julian Joseph and inevitable fundraising events such as a concert by the violinist Harriet Mackenzie.
Making music is not in itself this music academy’s purpose. “It’s to solve social problems and lack of creativity in lives through music, and we need to get communities working with us” Gero says. Young people are beset by unprecedented pressures at school, she says, having to be constantly tested because of the failures of the exam system, and then at home by social media “telling them what to think, telling them about mental health, climate change, everything but creativity” she says.
“This gives them peace in which they can be themselves”.