Covid 19 ignites musical traditions at home in Ards and North Down

Blu Zebra in partnership with Ceoltóirí Éireann Regional Dún Uladh Centre, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association NI Branch (RSPBANI) and Ciaran Elizabeth Doran, Museum Curator are delivering a unique project celebrating Musical Traditions in the Ards and North Down area. This is a PEACE IV EU funded Programme, managed by SEUPB in conjunction with Ards and North Down Peace IV Partnership, and in conjunction with the match-funders for the Council’s action plan, The Executive Office, Northern Ireland and the Department for Rural and Community Development, Ireland

The project brings together an eclectic mix of bands, musicians, singers, and dancers from a rich heritage including Ulster Scots – pipes and highland dancers, Traditional Irish Musicians and Irish dancers, a concert flute band alongside contemporary musicians.  

In early January 2020 through facilitated workshops and rehearsals a variety of music and dance groups began to meet and engage in a series of “get to know you” sessions.  They explored the history and heritage of their musical and dance traditions and how to showcase these through the creation of a new musical composition and an exhibition to be hosted in North Down Museum.

As part of the focus of bringing the musical traditions together, Therese Hogg of Blu Zebra described her vision for the project.  

This Peace IV project centres around two things – firstly, building relationships between musicians from different community backgrounds and secondly the composition of a new suite of music which reflects the eclectic musical traditions of the Ards and North Down area and the “Blue:Green Creatively Connected” theme of Ards and North Down’s Integrated Strategies for Tourism, Regeneration and Economic Development and for Arts and Heritage.  The new piece aims to capture 

the essence of the blue and green environment focusing on what connects the people of Ards and North Down - the song, dance, verse and the environment in which they live, a creation which could become the theme tune for the Ards and North Down area”.

Following an open procurement process, Sid Peacock a native of Bangor and now living in Birmingham, was appointed as composer for the project and attended a “get to know you” workshop in February to meet some of the participants before the Covid 19 Pandemic locked everyone down.

However, in the true spirit of the arts, creativity, innovation, technology, passion, and tradition cut through the restrictions and the project was re-imagined with agility maintaining engagement and developing strong relationships between the participants.  No one could have imagined how Zoom and its breakout rooms and weekly evening engagements could bring together everyone in lockdown to engage in such a productive sharing, learning and confidence building experience. Young people, their parents and family member all started logging in weekly to join the relationship building and rehearsal sessions.  Sid Peacock, the composer quickly got to know and understand the different musical and dance traditions and with professionalism and input from the participants, crafted a new piece of music reflecting all traditions.

As a partner in the project the Director of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Regional Dún Uladh Centre commented,

Using PEACE IV to deliver a project highlighting our shared cultural heritage is important in creating a shared narrative around our culture. We have watched the participants of all ages get to know each other and then become comfortable discussing their own cultural traditions. As they get to know each other’s culture better, they begin to become aware of the shared and intertwined nature of culture from this area, it is very rewarding”. Brenda McAleer - Director Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann

Another partner, Ian Burrows, RSPBANI commented;

“Thanks to PEACE IV this project has enabled different cultural traditions to come together and perform as one tradition through music. The participants got to know each other and gained a better understanding of the different cultural traditions and have also learned about the crossover of tunes that are widely shared and played by each cultural tradition. This project has been a game changer for bringing different cultural music traditions together”.

Through the session Sid Peacock and his partner Ruth Angell started to develop the first piece of music aptly named “Wee Green and Blue Belle”. Due to Covid 19 restrictions, instead of performing the piece on a stage, we quickly had to create an online performance supported by our videographer.  Through a process of engagement and co-production with the musicians and dancers, the first tunes within the suite of music were developed.  The tunes were learnt and practised at home by the growing numbers of participants and dissected and discussed at length at each meeting.

The participants were completely immersed and engaged in the PEACE IV Musical Traditions Project,

Cleland Memorial Pipe Band stated

’The participants of Cleland Memorial Pipe Band have thoroughly enjoyed engaging in this journey.  Even though, due to Covid 19, we haven’t able to meet in person, we have reverted to zoom meetings every Tuesday night which everyone looks forward to. This programme has given us the opportunity to meet new people and create new friends which everyone has enjoyed. We have also thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning new music and gaining new skills through recording ourselves and also finding out about the different groups.  The band has learnt many things along the way. As a pipe band we would rarely play with any other instruments apart from bagpipes and drums and so playing with Ards CCE and Ballygowan Flute Band is a new venture, and one that works very well. This programme has enabled all traditions to come together and perform as a unit despite the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. We cannot wait for what is next to come.’’

Ards Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann commented

“We have played traditional Irish music in many parts of the world, but to perform alongside other musical traditions from our own region has been such an exciting project and very educational for us all.  It really shows music has no barriers, rather it has the power to bring all traditions together in a respectful way”.

Ballygowan Concert Flute Band remarked

“Everyone at Ballygowan Concert Flute Band has thoroughly enjoyed being part of this cross-community project. It has been great to get to know local musicians from different backgrounds. The newly commissioned piece of music has enabled us to see what possibilities music has and has helped us widen our horizons to the different fusion collaborations that are possible between flutes, bagpipes, traditional musicians and dancers!"

Not only have the musicians learnt from one another but so too have the Scottish Highland Dancers and the Traditional Irish Dancers.  Each has their own unique dance traditions rooted in the Ards and North Down area.

Emerald Elements School of Dance commented,

“The video is a great opportunity for the Irish dancers to mix it up with all sorts of musicians. As most of the tunes actually cross over its easy for us to adapt to dance to any instrument”.

The Michelle Johnston School of Highland Dance commented,

“The Johnston School of Highland Dancing are currently practicing via zoom. The group of 10-16yr olds are so pleased to be involved with the project which has given them a fun focus in the absence of Competitions and Displays. They are enjoying the informal social meetings and rehearsals online to engage with fellow dancers and musicians; building these relationships will prove beneficial to merging musical traditions now and, in the future.”.

Scott Wilson, Chair of the PEACE IV Partnership commented;

As Chair of the PEACE IV Partnership, I am delighted to see how the Musical Traditions Programme was so expertly co-ordinated, celebrating the diverse range of bands, musicians, singers, and dancers from a rich heritage including Ulster Scots, Traditional Irish Musicians and dancers alongside contemporary musicians.  This is real testament to the hard work and dedication of all those involved and a wonderful example of how PEACE IV Funded Programmes can pull together members of society from all backgrounds.

The Composer, Sid Peacock commented,

“This project has been transformative for my creative practice. The ability to come together, collaborate, learn about each other and make music in a time like this has been truly wonderful. Even after this virus passes, I will still use this little digital device that's in everyone's pocket for creative works. The musicians and team have been fantastic, a bright light in difficult times”.

The project has now launched its first piece of music and dance online bringing together nearly 70 musicians and dancers from 11 different organisations.

See the video on youtube: https://youtu.be/ktoBBcD_-Es

Some of the Project’s participants on seeing the final video of the first piece stated;

“The video looks and sounds amazing. It showcases the music and dance traditions from Ards and North Down perfectly. Well done everyone from all at Ballygowan Concert Flute Band”

All of the hard work paid off! Sounds amazing” Ards CCE

“Fantastic cannot wait for the next part of the project” Emerald Elements School of Dance

“Absolutely fantastic!! What a privilege to be part of this programme bringing all traditions together. Well done everyone :)” Cleland Memorial Pipe Band

“Everyone deserves a round of applause” Cleland Memorial Pipe Band

“Fantastic, very moving indeed. From all at Ards CCE”

“A great experience all round, getting to share our own culture and embrace other cultures. Looking forward to the next stages of the project!” Ards CCE

“Lovely inspirational music that makes us want to dance!” Michelle Johnston School of Highland Dance

During this unusual time during the Covid Lockdown, the project has also captured stories, photographs, poems, and post cards from all participants about their musical and dance traditions and their experiences on the programme during the lockdown.  This is being captured as part of an exhibition and creative display which will be part of legacy of the project and will be housed in North Down Museum.

Ciaran Elizabeth Doran, the Project Curator stated,

“I have been overwhelmed by the development of this exceptional project in such adverse circumstances. Experiencing first-hand the valuable work the Peace IV funded project provides enabling young musician from different cultures and skill sets to come together and share each other’s musical traditions and developing new and shared experiences through a love of music is inspiring”.

There is more to come!! The project continues into the summer.  As many competitions and events have been cancelled the project offers the musicians and dancers the opportunity to co-create more pieces of music and dance for this unique suite of music, dance and song with Sid Peacock the composer.  if you would like to know more or if you are a band, choir, dance group, poet or singer in Ards and North Down and would like to participate in this inspiring project then please contact Therese Hogg, Blu Zebra.  Places are limited.  We are open to all suggestions.  Therese.hogg@bluzebra.co.uk or call 00 44 7786 514504 for more details. 

This programme is funded through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation 2014-2020, Northern Ireland, and the Border Region of Ireland, under the theme Building Positive Relations. 

The current participants on the programme are:

  • Ballygowan Concert Flute Band
  • Ards Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
  • Cleland Memorial Pipe Band
  • Michelle Johnston School of Highland Dance
  • Emerald Elements School of Dance
  • Reilly School of Irish Dance
  • MacKay School of Irish Dance
  • Aisling School of Irish Dance
  • Bangor School of Irish Dance
  • Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association NI Branch (RSPBANI)
  • Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Regional Dún Uladh Centre

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