Building new bridges and exploring new cultural intersections

What part do artists and arts organisations have to play in repairing the fault-lines dividing communities? While current socio-political events continue to shake foundations, isolate, uproot and disperse people; designer, musician and producer Paul Burgess talks about East, a storytelling project which brought together some of the tangled, rich history of cultures based in East London today…

The project isn’t just an arbitrary miscellany. In choosing our material and deciding how to present it we were exploring several specific ideas. We looked at stories that had common currency across cultures; A Tale of Two Dreamers, for example, which you can hear in our East Archive, appears in English culture as The Pedlar of Swaffham and is part of ancient Hebrew tradition. We were interested in how personal and traditional stories resonate when shared side-by-side; how does a traditional tale of self-discovery, say, speak to a storyteller’s retelling of their own personal experience? Also important is the act of performance, especially people telling stories from other cultures. Given all that’s going on in the world, there’s something very moving about a Muslim person telling a Jewish story or vice versa. And there’s something special too about a group of people from different backgrounds singing a Bangla lullaby familiar to many in a modern East London audience, or a Jewish song that would have been recognised by people in the area a few generations ago.

“I was particularly struck by how groups who were operating in the same space, often using the same venues, had very little interaction”

The East storytelling project started simply. I’d worked with a couple of storytellers – Shamim Azad and Sef Townsend – and wanted to bring them together to lead workshops that could cross some cultural dividing lines in East London, especially Tower Hamlets where I am based. There are many rich cultural traditions rooted here, but I was particularly struck by how groups who were operating in the same space, often using the same venues, had very little interaction. This was brought home by a short film I made for Slice, a project that I had co-organised, based around online collaborations between British and Pakistani artists. The film explored my own family’s roots in the East End and the rich Jewish history that, for me, haunts every part of the area. Yet very few of the newer residents I live alongside knew much about the previous generation of migrants who’d walked the same streets.

As well as a storyteller, Shamim is a poet, novelist and broadcaster, equally at home in both Bangla and English culture. Sef’s background combines both Traveler and Jewish heritages amongst others, and although he sometimes works as an actor, his chief calling is storytelling. He has done this all over the world, not only in arts venues and schools but in refugee camps, peace projects and one of the UK’s more notorious asylum seeker holding centres. I introduced Shamim to Sef, and suggested the possibility of workshops for adults that might bridge some of the East End’s cultural fault-lines and seek common ground. How we relate to an audience is also an important aspect of the East project. Storytelling is often seen as something for children, and while the East group has performed for young audiences, its default is adults performing for other adults on an equal footing, with shared food and a chance to have a chat.

“East had gone from being a project to an entity; a storytelling ensemble”

After the first performance, East took on a life of its own, with performances at the regular literature festival run  by Bishwo Shahitto Kendro (BSK, a Bangladeshi literature organization) and other local Bangla events, as well as inclusion in Tower Hamlets Council’s flagship theatre festival; A Season of Bangla Drama. By the end of all this, however, we needed a re-think. East had gone from being a project to an entity; a storytelling ensemble. So we came up with a threefold plan. The group would continue to meet socially and also get together to perform at events. One of our members offered to take on some of the organisation of this. Secondly, the three professionals involved would keep supporting the group but also run public East sessions. Thirdly, we would start to document our stories and songs with a series of online videos; a process which became the East Archive.

East Archive:

East Archive was launched at Rich Mix earlier this year and it’s now an ongoing project. Grown from our first idea to gather together the stories and songs we’d already shared, lots of new people are getting involved and new stories are being shared. We hope that the project can continue to grow into something that keeps building new bridges and exploring new cultural intersections.

Add your story to the East Archive:

The archive is open to anyone living in or linked to the East End to add to it. If that’s you, and you have a story or a song to share, please get in touch. In the meantime, you can see the archive at www.eastarchive.com. Although it’s still growing, it already covers all the traditional and personal stories we’ve performed as a group, as well as many of the songs. We very much hope you enjoy it!

East was funded by Arts Council England with support from Apples and Snakes.