Reflections on Let it Grow

by Project Lead, Oli Furness – March 2022

As I write this, it is 4 months to the day since COP26 drew to a close on the banks of the river Clyde in Glasgow, when our project Let it Grow culminated across the river in Govan with mass singing on the streets, and a tidal wave of music was shared online.

As a tiny independent organisation, we were blown away with how this project grew – from a seed of an idea in 2020 to a mass participation project involving people at all ages and stages of music making, in different countries and languages, live and online.

We owe each and every participant, supporter and collaborator a big THANK YOU for ensuring that Let it Grow did just that! We also owe you an explanation for such a delay in sharing a final mail-out and celebration of the project. Working at full tilt through a pandemic took its toll, and after bouts of covid in December our team has been working at a slower pace in 2022. I took a break in January to spend much needed time with family after a bereavement, returning in February to work at a more sustainable rate.

This has given me plenty of time to reflect on an extraordinary project, one that was a real pleasure to oversee – despite, and also perhaps partly because of, its experimental nature and unpredictability. We didn’t know how our piece of music would land or whether anyone would accept the invitation to get involved – but there was tangible excitement throughout, at coming together with different artists and organisations to try something that was new to all of us.

And now, as media attention surrounding the climate crisis has died down, and a new global crisis unfolds, it’s hard to remember that sense of excitement and hope which was driving so many of the creative actions in the lead up to and during COP.

Essentially, Let it Grow was about creating an opportunity for regular people to do something positive and proactive in the face of an escalating climate crisis. A chance for those who don’t identify as activists to express a view; an opportunity for music makers to share music with a purpose; and a chance for all of us to show solidarity with those who have worked in the climate space for a long time. COP26 provided the catalyst and the focus.

There were plenty of frustrations along the way. Many individuals and groups were super keen to get involved, but completely curtailed by covid-related challenges. This also affected our own timeline, which was a lot tighter than we’d have liked. And a general sense of saturation online meant that many brilliant film clips and music videos that were made as part of Let it Grow reached far smaller audiences than they deserved.

We never kidded ourselves that we could impact decision making behind the closed doors of the COP negotiations (although for a brief few weeks the UN courted us with talk of performing ‘Enough is Enough’ at the summit). Nevertheless, when COP packed up and left town, it was hard not to feel deflated and wonder if anything had been achieved at all.

Of course, the media focused on the negotiations and apparent lack of political will to act decisively. However, throughout the 12-day event, a separate story was playing out in streets, venues, schools and gathering places all over Glasgow (and beyond). The activism, creativity, resilience and imagination of regular people working together was just awe inspiring. One example amongst hundreds is the brilliant Lost Woods project – where school children planted 17,000+ trees in one week in October!

Despite a woeful lack of mainstream media coverage of initiatives like this, I was left in no doubt following COP26 that the majority of people do really care and want to see action, and fast. Could the key to political change be as simple as highlighting this, rather than continually emphasising the failures of our political leaders?

I like what musician and Glasgow native Johnny Cypher wrote after witnessing how Glasgow sprang to life with activism and creativity during COP. “However strong the currency of big business and the currency of those in positions of power and wealth… the currency of numbers is still a vital vehicle for social change. I believe world leaders will still act if enough of us demand it, and not a second sooner.”

I agree. I’m grateful to have had the chance to work on a project like Let it Grow, which provided dedicated time during work hours to think creatively about how Oi Musica and our networks of music makers might contribute to that numbers game. It wasn’t only about demanding action though – we’re not a campaigning organisation, it was also about demonstrating the strength of public feeling on an issue that affects everyone, and exploring new ways of doing that. As a social enterprise, our work is about generating collective benefit, so we will always be up for exploring new ways that music might do this.

My personal highlight was the second of two live performances of ‘Enough is Enough’ – the first had been on the Global Day of Climate Action at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, a week into the summit. Our song had only existed digitally at this point – the musicians and singers had never come together to play it live. And here it was, spectacularly brought to life by the massed voices of the Soundhouse Choir backed by a small core band of piano, brass and percussion, with Karine Polwart’s lead vocal ringing out underneath the incredible Gaia sculpture of planet Earth. It was powerful. And emotional. Children sat cross legged on the floor un-self-consciously singing along, and there were tears in the eyes of audience members and performers alike – I glimpsed more than a handful of grown men moved to tears that day. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of bringing the music to life in this way.

The performance that followed in Govan Square was similar in many ways – but supersized, taking our song to the streets and creating a piece of activism unlike anything I’ve ever been part of. Not only were there more performers (almost 200 in total), but we were joined by local school children from Riverside Primary, Glasgow’s excellent street bands Brass, Aye? and SambaYaBamba, and for full goosebump-inducing impact, 100 singers in the audience joining as a flash mob chorus. The effect was of an event that was less like a performance, and more like one big collective action that everybody in the square that day was part of. It seemed there were more people there that knew the song than didn’t, and they weren’t afraid to belt it out. It was an incredible scene that had opened with stillness and a single heartbeat drum, erupting into mass singing, dancing and a message ringing out across the Clyde to world leaders on the other side.

This is what street performance can be. This is what street band music at its absolute best is capable of: inspiring involvement and participation, throwing caution to the wind, welcoming everyone and utilising public spaces in exciting ways to gather communities together. The experience will stay with me for a long time, and I’m eternally grateful to Vision Mechanics and their giant puppet STORM for hosting us as part of their event that day.

All in all, the project took about a year to build – responding directly to the energy and interest generated by the release of ‘Enough is Enough’ back in November 2020. Four months on from its completion, the legacy that Let it Grow has left Oi Musica lies in the new connections we have forged, the conversations we have been able to be part of and a renewed drive when it comes to using music to bring people together. Via both its online and live elements, it was a joy to connect with a raft of music makers we weren’t aware of, reconnect with others after the enforced hiatus of the pandemic and to witness new connections and links being made across different networks. It is those personal connections and shared experiences which drive inspiration and new ideas, leading to fresh projects that build on what has gone before. And I’m excited to see what follows from an initiative like this.

Overall, there was an impressive range of arts activity responding to COP’s presence in Glasgow. It was an honour to be a small part of that. And it will be interesting to see in the coming months and years what the legacy of all this creative action will be. The climate crisis demands serious levels of creative thinking, problem solving and working together – as do all the major crises currently playing out globally – and the arts can play an invaluable role in this. I think there is now growing recognition of this in Scotland, following the shot in the arm that hosting COP provided. And for this reason alone, and despite its apparent failures, I am grateful that the summit came to Glasgow.

Why do we work with Street Bands?

From an article called Why The Streets published in Deadline News October 2019 (Olivia Furness)

As a musician, why would you want to work in the street? In fact – why would you want to work outdoors at all? It’s unpredictable – maybe wet, windy, cold. In Scotland, it’s usually all three. Streets are predominantly used as routes for getting places, not spaces to stop and enjoy. Where is the audience – there isn’t one, right? You could be playing music on a stage in a nice venue, with a big PA, a big crowd, a great atmosphere, a dedicated venue team, and the safety of a backstage area to retreat to. Why not aim for that? Why forfeit that opportunity? Big stages and great venues are what musicians dream of. Aren’t they?

Photo: C Werrett

I absolutely love working in the street – as a performer, a producer, an event organiser. And I love it as an audience member too. Street arts are all about audience and performer being close and on the same level – making a connection without the hindrance or distance of stages, lights and effects. Street performance is raw; watching it unfold right in front of your eyes, maybe only a metre or two away, is magical. Artists who are experienced at working in the street have a unique way of captivating and including an audience that is different to the venue or stage experience.

When I first started playing music in the early 2000s, in my early 20s in Edinburgh, it was mostly with groups that performed outdoors. And this led me to work with a small crew creating a performance drumming routine for an outdoor show, which was in development for a 3-night run at Glastonbury Festival’s Theatre & Circus Field. That first run of performances, and the whole Glastonbury experience just blew me away. It opened my eyes to a whole new world, and a whole new way of living through the summer months. It became a big aim of mine to spend the summer months playing the UK festival circuit.

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: C Werrett

Alongside this, though, the streets were an ever-present part of my story as a musician and performer. In 2007, Orkestra del Sol – a 10-piece brassy rabble of a band describing ourselves as ‘the swagger of a Balkan wedding band with the riotous energy of Latin carnival’ – landed an opportunity to work with a theatre Director to devise a street show for a consortium of UK street events. Mikey Martins (now at the helm of Freedom Festival in Hull) honed our over-excited, frenetic act into a more choreographed affair, drawing out the narrative, character, humour and audience interaction that was in there somewhere, and giving it shape and space to breathe. We learned about gently inviting the audience in, instead of figuratively yelling at them to watch, or dance, or have fun. And we learned a lot about the art of attracting, entertaining and – most importantly – retaining a street audience, when we toured the show around the UK’s main street theatre festivals: Stockton, Winchester, Greenwich & Docklands, Manchester, Brighton, London Thames Festival. And it would have been such a joy if it hadn’t been one of Britain’s wettest summers on record!

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: C Werrett

We turned up at so many almost-cancelled, scaled-down or barely functioning outdoor events beset by downpours and flooding. And yet somehow, amidst all that sogginess, the (small) audiences came and we had a blast in the streets regardless.

In the subsequent years, Orkestra del Sol notched up some fantastic experiences that I’m forever grateful for – sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, tours of seated art centres and theatres, big festival stages (Cambridge Folk Festival being a highlight) and whole summers of music festival dates. We recorded 3 albums, embarked on madcap driving tours across Europe, and performed in India, China and Australia. Not forgetting what was arguably the pinnacle for us – a live session on Cerys Matthews’ Sunday show on BBC Radio 6 Music!

But underpinning and supporting all of this was our experience of playing on the streets. There is no other training like it. When your audience is on the move, walking past and not planning to stop, you very quickly develop tricks to get noticed. It’s a low pressure space for trying new ideas, and it is different every time. Nothing keeps you on your toes as a performer quite like it.

As we played more and more street events, or just went busking between shows or on in-between days on a tour, I began to learn a hell of a lot about people. This is what I noticed, and love about street performance:

But above all, more than any other reason, I love street performance because it is for everybody. It is about as inclusive as any one thing can be.

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: G Wynn

The organisation Outdoor Arts UK tells us that outdoor arts audiences are the most representative of wider society out of all the art forms. This is amazing! Audience Development Managers in venues would kill for this statistic. This is culture, music, fun, good times, new experiences, strange experiences and inspiration reaching everyday people – kids, old folk, regular Joes, cultural non participators, cultural snobs, all generations, all social backgrounds, all cultural backgrounds. The power in this moves me beyond words. And I ask myself why there isn’t more of this? Why isn’t every town, village, city centre and suburb filling their streets – drab or otherwise – with inspirational performances and inviting their communities to be part of it? If more kids grew up with this as the norm, I’m convinced the world would be a better place.

So while I’m grateful for all the great music festival experiences I’ve had since the early 2000s, and full of admiration for the excellent small festivals that exist all over the UK who have reinvented and reimagined in order to survive tough times, I feel that there has to be more. More opportunities for people to let go and have a good time, more opportunities to gather together, to connect with each other and to express joy. Maybe even to be able to do this without turning it into a full on, drug or alcohol fuelled weekender?!

It also now bothers me more than it used to that the music festival experience is so limited to those who can afford it. Glastonbury has been a gated community of affluent revellers ever since the Big Fence went up in 2002. And any music festival that costs more than £100 for a family to attend – no matter how amazing the kids’ field is or how diverse the line up – is incapable of being inclusive.

So for me, street festivals are where it’s at. Let’s reclaim our streets and public spaces, let’s reimagine them as stages, parties and circuses and let’s invite more people to the party (punters and performers alike). The money that is generated from increased visitors to a place is important. But the joy and sense of connection that is generated from gathering together in our streets in this particular way is totally unquantifiable – as all the best things in life are.

February 2019 – Our new premises in Portobello

Last month we finally opened our doors to celebrate our brand new workspace! Here’s a short film of the Launch Party – a small but perfectly formed gathering of friends, colleagues & musicians who came together at Tribe Porty to warm our new home, join in the music and raise a glass to the start of a new chapter for Oi Musica. Thanks to everyone who made it along!

Thanks also to Heather Longwall Films for capturing the evening on film.

Co-working, social enterprise and finding our home

We are now permanently based at Tribe Porty, 19-21 Windsor Place, Edinburgh EH15 1DT.

This development has been a complete game changer for us as an organisation, after nearly 4 years of short term leases, 5 studio moves, 7 different lock ups and infinite packing & unpacking. Over the moon doesn’t cover it!

Not only have we found a secure home, but we’ve also joined the exciting wider project that is Tribe Porty. This place is fantastic – please drop by if you’re in the area to see co-working, collaboration & community-building in action! Tribe Porty is a social enterprise, aiming to nurture growth, create connections and support human potential through work, art and quality of life. We’re very happy to be part of it.

The timing was perfect for us, as Oi Musica officially became a social enterprise in June 2018 – a month or two before we got the keys to Tribe! Being based in a building with lots of other social enterprises as well as charities, small business and freelancers continues to provide inspiration, support, practical advice and the kind of solidarity that’s hard to find in a regular office block!


The Build…

After a visit to Tribe Porty’s newly acquired premises (underneath its existing venue on Windsor Place) early in 2018, we took a leap that felt risky but right, and committed to undertaking  a big (for us) build project. The challenge was to create a sound proof creation space and Oi Musica office in the middle of the building, plus outdoor storage big enough for all our equipment and workshop instruments. Thank god for lifelong pals and skilled craftsmen / acoustics geeks Greg Molleson and Ben Seal! Plus a team of skilled helpers including Bob Furness (jobs for the boys!), Fin Loening and Phil Hardie.

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