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The loyalist band that's marching to a different drum

A unique project has united a Shankill organisation with fellow musicians from across the world, as Ivan Little discovers

Published 25/09/2015

Strong bond: John Higgins from Shankill Road Defenders, Karwan Shareef, David Bates and David Thomson from the Defenders
Strong bond: John Higgins from Shankill Road Defenders, Karwan Shareef, David Bates and David Thomson from the Defenders
Bridging divides: the Shankill Road Defenders along with overseas musicians were a big hit at Culture Night in Belfast
High notes: the cross community and religion band

They're the loyalist flute band who are marching to a very different beat. For the Shankill Road Defenders are on the attack - against racism against ethnic communities who have made their homes in Northern Ireland and against the stereotyping of their own culture.

The 35 Shankill musicians are banging the drum for a major new cross-community initiative designed to tackle the scourge of division in Belfast and to cast off what they say is the tired and unfair sectarian image of loyalist bands.

Under a project called Music Unite spearheaded by a community group called Beyond Skin and several other organisations, the Defenders have been playing for eight months alongside people, including Muslim musicians, from a wide range of countries across the world, such as Jamaica, India, Slovakia, Ghana and Kurdistan.

A uilleann piper has also crossed the divide in Belfast to play with the flute band on the Shankill.

And last week at Culture Night in Belfast, the flute band took a major step forward into the unknown by appearing at a public concert in the heart of the city.

"We were very nervous about going into town in full uniform with our bass drum with Shankill Road Defenders written all over it," admits David Thomson, chairman of the band.

"But we reckoned our culture should be included in a Culture Night and that was the main driving force behind our taking part."

The flute band members also said they realised that their participation, even though they were performing along with musicians from overseas, would be viewed with suspicion by Culture Night aficionados.

David says: "I think people were expecting us to play all this blood and thunder stuff. And then we walked from the bus and started off our concert with The Yellow Rose of Texas.

"I could see some folk in the audience wondering what was going on - especially as there were all these guys playing with us on bongo drums.

"In the end, we had nothing to worry about because the response was absolutely amazing." David said the Defenders, who have played at Somme commemorations in France and at Orange parades in Canada, were keen to break down barriers with Music Unite and to protect their own culture at the same time.

"The way the present situation is going with the loyalist bands - we can't walk here and we can't walk there - we feel our culture is in danger," he says. "We are misinterpreted. We thought Music Unite would be an opportunity to show that we are not a sectarian mob and we are not racist. We are working-class people who go to our work and then try to express ourselves through our music.

"And we can feel sympathy with the multi-cultural people who live here and who are fighting the same battles as we are against bigotry and stereotyping.

"We want to get across the message that if the Shankill Road Defenders can sit down and play music with people from the other side of the world, why can't everyone let them live beside them instead of wrecking their houses.

"They're not monsters. Their culture is under threat - the same as ours."

Karwan Shareef, a human rights lawyer and musician from a Muslim background in Kurdistan who's been living in Belfast for nearly three years, says he believed Music Unite could be a force for good, for everyone.

Karwan says he'd been intrigued by the music and colourful exuberance of the loyalist flute bands after seeing the Ulster Covenant Centenary celebrations in Belfast and wanted to know more and to get a greater understanding of the culture.

He adds: "I was excited by the vision of Beyond Skin and was only too happy to get behind Music Unite. And I have discovered that the loyalist bands have been portrayed in exactly the same incorrect way as I have been coming from a Muslim community.

"We are all sometimes depicted as extremists or terrorists just as the loyalists - and nationalists - have been stereotyped, too."

Karwan has also reached out to nationalist communities in Belfast working with a youth group in the Ardoyne area of the city who have been engaging with Protestant youngsters in Bushmills.

Come Monday morning, Karwan will be supporting Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week across Northern Ireland, where around 200 events will take place under the theme of One Place, Many People - with the aim of celebrating diversity and finding out what it means to share one place with different people.

And the ostensibly odd coupling of Music Unite will be centre stage as the Shankill Road Defenders tour the province in a bid to shatter the negativity surrounding their music.

Darren Ferguson, the CEO of Beyond Skin, who've been trying to develop diversity through music, arts and dance for 11 years and who work with a staggering 80 musicians from 50 different nationalities based here, says: "This all started after our partner organisation the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building approached us with a plan for a project which would engage loyalist flute bands and help show the positive side of what they do rather than the negative stories which always seem to come out.

"There's a lot of frustration in the Protestant community and with loyalist bands in particular that the negative image is the one which is always portrayed in the media, ignoring the great musicianship and the skills and discipline they are teaching young people.

"Irish traditional music is very easily accessible, but from a tourist point of view, there just doesn't seem to be any access to the other side of our culture. Most loyalist bands are hidden away in clubs somewhere, or if they are out playing at parades they are always going to attract the same audience.

"The idea was to use music as the glue that would bring people together from different walks of life, learn about the bands and allow the bandsmen to find out about other cultures at the same time."

The first part of the project was centred around learning a pop song, You're the Voice by Australian John Farnham, with its lyrics about people all being someone's son or daughter, and questioning how long they will look at each other down the barrel of a gun.

"It really took off from day one," says Darren.

"The atmosphere was terrific and the relationships with all the visiting musicians was wonderful. And there's a film coming out soon about the whole initiative."

The collaboration between the band and their fellow musicians went on to explore the commonality between different musical genres.

John Higgins, the Scottish-based musical director of the Shankill Defenders, says: "I have introduced some traditional Irish tunes to the band and they've all welcomed them into their repertoire.

"One of my tasks has been to integrate the visiting players who are mainly drummers, but also include a Slovakian bass guitarist, an Irish piper and a Scottish piper into the set-up of Music Unite."

Observers of the loyalist band scene in Northern Ireland and, particularly in Belfast, have claimed that despite the stereotypes, it has actually steered scores of young men away from violence on the streets.

And David Thomson, who has been in loyalist flute bands for 43 years and who has two sons in the Defenders, says: "Being in the band gives members a sense of belonging and gives them discipline to know right from wrong."

David and Darren hope that other loyalist flute bands across Northern Ireland will eventually play from the same hymn sheet as the Shankill Road Defenders. He says: "During next week's tour, we know that most of the people in the audience will be from the Protestant community and that is important because we want them to ask the guys questions about all the issues involved in promoting their culture in this way.

"We are expecting a bit of a backlash from people who don't approve of what we are doing, though really, they should know better.

"But Culture Night was a huge milestone for us. And it's important to our thinking that nobody should be ashamed of their culture due to the actions of others.

"The big myth about multi-culturalism is that we should all hold hands and be as one. But it's not about that at all. No one should lose their identity."

David Thomson said he knew there were critics who wondered why the Shankill Road Defenders were teaming up with the other communities.

"People have asked me why we are hanging about with 'them boys'. But I have told them that not everyone's an extremist and that there are good guys out there. Just as we want people to look at us and see the Shankill Road Defenders for what we are."

John Higgins says he's been quizzed by musicians in Scotland why he was involved with the Shankill Road Defenders.

"Some people feel intimidated by the name of the band. But I have found the boys to be a brilliant bunch of guys.

"And how would you ever make changes in terms of advancement unless you are in the middle of it?

"The people who comment on these things - what are they doing? Nothing."

Belfast Telegraph

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