Music to change lives – Irene Taylor Trust in Bogotá

In October 2016, in the immediate aftermath of a shock defeat for the peace deal that had been put before the Colombian people in a historic vote, the British Council and Batuta convened the Music and Social Transformation conference. Writing for Huffington Post, Cathy Graham, the British Council’s Director for Music explains: “A substantial part of the conference was dedicated to Music and Peacebuilding … the ambition and scale of the operation was enormous.” Discussions with arts practitioners and policy makers from a range of backgrounds explored perspectives and possible solutions – how can music play its part in a peace process? Ahmad Sarmast, survivor of a Taliban suicide-bomber attack in Afghanistan and founder of Kabul’s first music school, told his incredible story and Alfonso Cardenas, who runs the Lucho Bermudez Music School in Carmen de Bolivar in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia, talked about how violence can lead to the creation of art. From the UK, the conference heard from Streetwise Opera, the organisation that works through music to improve the lives of homeless people; Drake Music, who use technology to break down the physical barriers that can prevent disabled musicians from taking a full part in music-making; Paraorchestra, led by Charles Hazlewood – the world's first professional ensemble made up entirely of disabled musicians; Beyond Skin, established in Northern Ireland in 2004 to use music, arts and new media as a tool for cultural education to address issues of racism and sectarianism; and the Irene Taylor Trust "Music in Prisons" which works with NEET young people (Not in Employment, Education or Training), prisoners and ex-prisoners to develop their confidence and skills so that they can become celebrated and valued members of the community. “The determination was clear,” says Cathy Graham, “this conference was going to leave a legacy.”

In April 2019, Sara Lee from the Irene Taylor Trust accepted the British Council’s invitation to return to Bogotá to continue the story, to follow up on contacts made, get an insight into how arts projects are managed and delivered in the Bogotá community and to share the methods and practices in use throughout creative arts programmes in UK. We caught up with Sara on her return to the UK and she told us all about her experiences in Bogotá.


Sara Lee in Bogotá

“‘When did you realise you wanted to use your music to help people?’” This question came from a young girl that I met following a dance performance she and her group had just shared with me, and a short talk about the work I do in prisons in the UK, which I had just shared with them. It felt like such an insightful question from someone so young who maybe hadn’t even heard of such a thing as Music in Prisons before. But something I had said or, as someone told me later, perhaps something about the way I was describing the joy I get from doing my job, led her to ask it. Hearing it in her wonderfully simple way made me smile, and think – in one question, she had encapsulated much of what educators, facilitators and teaching artists are completely committed to doing. 

When did you realise you wanted to use your music to help people?

“As a facilitator and leader of an organisation, you don’t often find yourself with the opportunity to see others ‘at work’, to learn from them and to share effective working practices. This was what made my trip to Bogotá so rich. I spoke, I led creative workshops, I participated, and I listened. I was reminded that the artists we work with and the support we give them, is possibly the single most important factor that ensures our work does what it is designed to do. Facilitators are inspirational and innovative people who are constantly ‘giving’ but there are also times when they need to take something or to be given something in return. This won’t simply be the joy of seeing the groups they work with have a great time but should include supported (and paid) time away from the job, offering time and space to reflect and look in depth at their own practice and to embrace new opportunities to learn.

“I was hosted by Idartes – a Colombian organisation working across artforms to help realise the transformative effects of the arts on society – and a packed week was arranged for me to include presentations, practical workshops and visits to watch facilitators at work.

“The week began with an introduction to Crea, one of Idartes’ flagship programmes. Crea is a huge programme offering an amazing opportunity to communities across Bogotá for individuals to get involved in a variety of arts initiatives. In response, I told them that in London alone there isn’t an umbrella organisation which delivers arts work to communities but, instead, the Irene Taylor Trust is one of several smaller organisations that deliver creative work in specialist areas – in our case it’s music in prisons and wider criminal justice settings. I was asked questions about our process, our ways of working and how we support the facilitators we work with and, of course, how we receive funding.

“The afternoon turned into a riotous exchange of music and laughter in a workshop for over 20 artist-educator musicians who work for the Crea programme. My aim was to give them some insight into our criminal justice work in the UK and share some of the creative processes we use, which could potentially support projects delivered in Colombia. I had no idea how it would be received, as they were all proficient musicians who’ve been working for a while in different settings in the city, but the group totally immersed themselves in creating new music. I noticed how supportive they were of each other during the creative tasks and it was clear the group really enjoyed working in this way even though the various processes I shared were new to them. I wondered whether they’d been offered the chance to just sit together as facilitators and create music in this way before. We used the same starting points that we would use when writing music with people on our projects in the UK and, following an informal ‘performance’ by the group of the pieces they had created, I was able to play them previous examples of how the same starting points can lead to very different results. They did a tremendous job and went out singing and beaming, feeling as though they had more ideas for how to create and share music with their own groups.

Crea staff firmly believe that art is for everyone and the centres are open to whoever wishes to do something creative, no matter who they are or what their background is

“The musicians I met work in a number of Crea centres across the city of Bogotá. I had the chance to visit two of them – one was a relatively new centre and the other had been an integral part of the community for several years. Crea staff firmly believe that art is for everyone and the centres are open to whoever wishes to do something creative, no matter who they are or what their background is. Castila Crea was absolutely buzzing with activity when I visited – I saw an art installation project, a film class, drama, lots of music and some dance too. The music groups were very polished, playing some brilliant music – some original music, some hybrid with a mix of percussion, electric instruments woodwinds and vocals. I left after three hours feeling that the arts is celebrated in Bogotá, and Idartes and their Crea programme have made it their mission to ensure it is a key part of community life and that everyone has access.

“I was invited to the Centro Rehabilitación Integral (CRI) – a rehabilitation centre with state-of-the-art facilities, and now nearly three years old, for around 250 military personnel who have been injured in combat. Walking around it felt incredibly peaceful. In one room was a row of instruments laid out along the wall and several people – the new music group – milling around. The group had been together for just a few weeks and their pre-performance nerves manifested in almost complete silence, quite the opposite to situations I usually experience in my work where people want to tell you very loudly that they’re nervous and ask what happens “if it goes wrong”. The music group opened the session with some fantastic tracks they’d been working on, after which I was introduced to about 40 people who listened quietly and politely as I spoke. The number increased quite rapidly over the next 15 minutes or so. The outside door was left open and the voices and the music I chose to play – written by a Colombian man who we’d met in a UK prison – seemed to draw people in. The vibe and volume lifted as the session went on, and by the time we decided to do an impromptu jam session of an original Colombian folk-inspired tune, it felt more like a gig. Looking around, it was palpable how key the music was to the men’s lives and wellbeing and how much they relished being able to play and listen. In a very basic exchange with the group afterwards, they told me how much they enjoy the music class because, ‘we all just love music, it’s part of our life’. The majority of the people I met come to the CRI on a part time basis and I wondered whether any of them had been introduced to the Crea centres in their community, so that they might continue their learning. 

“On Thursday I was on very familiar ground, visiting El Redentor – a prison for some 200 young men. It seemed quite quiet but for a walk across the open courtyard where religious songs were being piped into the space via various speakers, reminiscent of a scene from The Shawshank Redemption. A group of about ten young men approached me, excited to learn some basic English; they are now able to introduce themselves, say where they are from and ask ‘how are you?’. I was shown to the area where prisoners often make music and I saw several instruments although a few weren’t in any kind of working order. It reaffirmed to me that if you wish to use music in settings such as this then you need to have good quality equipment for people to use otherwise it suggests to them that they are worth as little care as the instruments they’ve been given.

I think we’re all very much the same asides from our circumstances

“The young women at an institution for holistic care next door told me how a recent dance project had been a revelation for them, something they hadn’t thought they would enjoy but really had. We talked about how learning an artistic discipline helps you focus, and one young woman was clear how it had lifted her spirits and helped her not give up. As I left, another young woman asked, ‘if you could leave us with a message, what would it be?’ Another wonderfully thoughtful question, my answer to which, ‘I think we’re all very much the same asides from our circumstances’ was received with happiness and a few teary eyes.

“As my week came to an end, I was able to reflect with positivity on what a privilege it had been to be able to share what we’ve been doing with the Irene Taylor Trust for so long and to have seen the information received in the same way as it was offered: with excitement and fun. In my debrief session with Idartes staff, I spoke about the ways we might be able to continue this work together in the future. There is so much extraordinary work going on in Bogotá, meaning there is a need to take great care of the artist educators in order that they can continue to deliver their extraordinary work. This will, of course, include pastoral support but it will also be necessary to support them creatively, in order to help them develop their practice. This is an area where I feel we can really support the new partnership, and the potential to be part of something which will be so beneficial is a truly exciting prospect.”