Windmill Lane, Smethwick, 1984

This photograph was taken at a rehearsal for the May Day Fire Show that was held in Victoria Park. The Windmill Lane Community Centre was one of the venues for activity for the event. Young people attended workshops to participate in a procession to the park.  Ron Collins (pictured) first became involved with Smethwick Music Workshop, based at the Community Association of West Smethwick. The workshop was set up in February 1984, and went on to create a processional band and live band to accompany the 1984 Victoria Park May Day Fireshow.

“I was generally looking for work as a musician. I was unemployed at the time. I was invited over to Jubilee by Cynthia. So the gig at the Red Cow was the first thing I got involved with. My developing working approach started with the belief in the universality of music. For example,  sea shanties or work songs, which are universal, from all over the world, which facilitate work or the gathering of community strength to perform a particular task. My particular skills, voice and percussion, going back in time are the universal things people would have come up with before anything else, banging on rocks and logs before drums were fabricated and they would be vocalising. That was the precursor to any invention of instruments. That was the luck of my musical skills because I’ve found it’s easy to engage whatever group on that level; if you get into a guitar or keyboard then people have to put in the work, have to practice, and get up to a standard to share with other musicians and build a community around you. And you’ve all got to operate on an understandable level. Once you’re into that realm, then you’re beginners and intermediate and super duper musicians. With vocal and percussion you can demonstrate the foothold that anyone can get into music making and sing about things that concern your community. We kept an eye on being as multicultural as possible while acknowledging your own heritage. It was inspiring.

With Pete Yates from Banner Theatre we also created a dance band for the barn dancing for the Summer Celebration events with the Bus. We’d get besieged by the kids sometimes. I remember at Hamstead getting bricked by the local lads. That’s a political challenge, how you involved and engage with the local community while half of them are throwing bricks at you. By and large we pulled it off. Some places we went back three summers in a row because it was well received. Sometimes there were very few instrumentalists available and it was a job to put a full bland together. I remember Kevin, who was calling the dances, saying to me, ‘Well, me and you and me Ron, we could do it, just the two of us, a caller and a drummer’, which was a slight exaggeration.

I then did a lot of facilitation workshops, mostly with people with learning disabilities. At the same time was doing the community arts stuff, there was period there was that famous Enterprise Allowance Scheme going on where the Government bunged you £40 a week and you tried to create your own business. I failed dismally like lots of people at that. But in the meantime I accumulated a lot of sessional work,  whereby you’re visiting a lot of different places. It wouldn’t be allowed these days. I can remember doing an old people’s day centre, then I’d do to a disability day centre then I’d go to East Birmingham College, where they’d let me loose with a bunch of people, all in one day. It did inform my working practice ever since, so I was able to go in at their level, with songs they recognised and it led to a quite a long fulfilling career working with people, quite a few elderly, some recovering from mental illness, but mostly with those with learning disabilities. If you can help sometime find a skill they might think they haven’t got, let people know ‘This is it is possible’ even if they thought it wasn’t possible, that’s important. That’s the power of music.”