7 min read

Music Creates Community

by Phill Minns

Phill Minns established Best Foot Music in 2009. His main responsibilities include music recording, artist and community liaison, event and project management. He runs community workshops and presentations, and is responsible for the day to day running of Best Foot Music.

Best Foot Music is a Brighton based non profit that collaborates with musicians who have moved to the UK from around the World. It’s a play on ‘best foot forward’, a way to generate positive stories on the topic of migration, situated around music and the communities connected to it.

Left to right - Polina, Dina, Alaa, Jamal

The initial seeds for BFM evolved around 2008, after a trip to Istanbul for a friend's wedding, a few follow on trips and some time in Croatia, where I’d been lucky enough to hear some excellent live music. I always bought back bags of CDs from across the region.

Having been an avid music fan most of my life, and putting on gigs since my late teens, I naively dreamt of travelling around South Eastern Europe, making recordings of folk musicians in their villages. Looking back this sounds embarrassingly orientalist, and really what would be the point?

The incident that made sense happened after a few weeks of being back in the UK. 

Elements of the British press have a well deserved reputation for xenophobia that can be traced back to the days of empire. In 2008 this xenophobia was especially present and directed at people who’d come to the UK since Poland and some of the other Central & East European states had joined the EU. One evening on the TV news, a report featured a family who’d been harassed so badly they were being forced to relocate elsewhere in the UK. As they were filmed getting on a bus, there was a shot of a guy with an accordion on his back. It was a mini lightbulb moment, I realised there was no need to travel to record music, and perhaps something positive could be done to challenge some of the negative rhetoric around migration. 

Bashir Al Gamar (Photo by Grze Iwanski - https://giwanski.com/)

A few days later, I was in the local Polish shop, and met a woman who was putting up a poster (in Polish) for a music gig her band was playing and organising. I asked her about the gig, “English people never come to our concerts”. So that was that, I went to the show.

This was back in 2009, the venue still exists, it holds about 150 people. The night of the gig the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d experienced before. A packed audience of mostly Polish, Czech and Slovakian people seemed to know all the words as they sang and danced to the band, who were playing a mix of Polish folk pop songs. No one was too self conscious to show support. It felt akin to a lower league football team playing at Wembley. In a city where you can watch English language  rock musicians play every night of the week, this was their day and they were going to enjoy it. 

The band was called Marysia Band, and they organised a monthly Polish night, which I started going to. We got to know each other and in January 2010 we made a studio recording with them. The initial idea was to make an archive of music recordings, to showcase some of the cultural contributions people make when they come to the UK. The only thing was, as the woman from the band had said, English people didn't come to the gigs, so why would they listen to the music online or buy CDs’. The band asked if I could help them get gigs.

Ukrainian Voices

This was when I realised I was in a position of privilege. Having grown up here and spent most of my life in music, I knew something about how it worked and had connections with local venues and promoters. Many of the musicians coming here didn't have those networks, and at the time many of them were working zero-hours contracts in irregular hours jobs with long shifts for minimum wage.

We started working together, booking gigs in venues that put on folk groups and other established venues in the city. I also started meeting more musicians and making field recordings, often in people’s homes, community centres or my small flat. Slowly we built a reputation and local festivals started booking bands from us. In 2011 we helped program an East European showcase at Crawley International Mela Festival. A free annual festival in Crawley with around 10’000 people attending over a weekend. This helped us connect with festival organisations further afield and we started getting bookings across the South East. Although weirdly at the same time, in our home city of Brighton, it was still hard to attract native English audiences. The band's lead singer moved to London, they did one gig there in a Polish community centre, but slowly stopped playing together. 

Audience demographics and the nature of our work started to change with the horrific war in Syria, and some people coming to the UK to escape it. It also made me consider how as an organisation we communicate about the musicians who are part of the work. 

Central to the BFM ethos is the way we communicate about the people we work with. We avoid simplistic labels such as ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ particularly as much of this terminology has been used divisively by the right wing press. We believe that identities can be multiple, complex, flexible, interconnected, contextualised and a choice. We believe in a pluralistic view of society, with many interconnected worlds, networks and relationships, focusing on lived experiences, commonalities and shared values. In this way whilst an individual may identify as ‘Syrian’, sing songs in Arabic and have come to the UK as a refugee, they can also equally identify as being ‘from Brighton’ and part of the local community. Everyone who is here is part of the local geography and history and we need not be entirely defined by a single experience that has happened to us. 

With the Best Foot Music Community Sound System, which we lend for free to anyone organising refugee related events.

Key to our work is collaboration and the network of people and communities that share the local ecosystem. In 2016 a friend introduced us to a local Syrian woman who was part of her social group. She was setting up a Syrian community organisation to support some of the recently arrived people escaping the war in Syria. In January 2017 we all worked together on a collaborative fundraiser event. One of the recently arrived Syrian guys knew some musicians, who’d been part of the Syrian National Orchestra, they’d been resettled in Yorkshire, but if we could pay their transport they’d play the gig. They did, the gig was a huge success and some of the musicians later decided to settle in Brighton when their refugee status was finalised. We’ve been working together since. 

Events with Syrian musicians and community organisations were widely supported across the broader community, possibly as Syria was so much in the news at the time, it feels like there was a ground swell of awareness raising and people wanted to show up and support refugee communities. A similar process happened with people coming from Ukraine. Though through no fault of their own, Ukrainian refugees in the UK have been treated differently by the Government, compared to say people coming from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. For a while this led to some of the other bands we worked with receiving far fewer booking enquiries, which took some work to negotiate. When programming our own events, we make a conscious effort to include diverse line ups, with representation of a range of cultural backgrounds. 

As time has passed and we’ve become established, there are festivals, organisations and networks in neighbouring counties and cities, who’ve been regularly booking bands from us, collaborating and sharing spaces and ideas for nearly a decade now. Many of these organisations are staffed by people who have lived experience of seeking safety in the UK and while we may have grown up in different places, we’re all here now and it feels very much like a community.

Ukrainian Voices performing at Maté Café - a collaborative event with members of the Syrian community and Al Nour Academy, a local Arabic Language school.

Since October 2021, and the relaxation of lockdown conditions, we've  worked with the local council-run library, Jubilee Library on collaborative community events showcasing musicians from refugee and migrant backgrounds living in the city. Situated in the town centre the library is an accessible community hub that puts a lot of work into making an inclusive and safe space. It is part of the Libraries of Sanctuary scheme. 

In January this year we held the 5th of these events, called ‘Winter Warmer - Community Cohesion’. Acts included Polina & Merlin Shepherd, playing East European Yiddish Klezmer ,poetry from Gaza read by Tanushka and Sara, Sudanese songs from Bashir Al Gamar,  Ukrainian Voices folk choir  and a first time performance by a Syrian/Ukrainian fusion group featuring long established Syrian duo Jamal and Alaa, with Ukrainian duo Dina and Polina, along with the Sussex Syrian Community children’s choir. Both the Syrian and Ukrainian groups had met a few times after being booked to play at the same gigs, so it seemed a natural step for them to try a musical collaboration. Both groups suggested a song in their own language, they then worked out how they could translate the songs so they could be sung in Arabic and Ukrainian and they could all play them together. The event was well attended by people from across the city, helping create a warm supportive and shared occasion. 

The reasons people come to the UK are multiple and many people have been forced to flee their homes, but by working together, with music and the connections it facilitates, we can help foster a sense of welcoming and community.






Winter Warmer event - mentioned in the article - includes links to all artists mentioned