Tales from Hill Top, 1989

Beverley Harvey shares her memories of the process involved in making an audio piece with an Afro-Caribbean church-based group. This image comes from sessions with the Hill Top Triumphant Church of God, a Pentecostal group in West Bromwich. The photograph shows some members of the church practising songs, before being recorded.

‘‘I worked with Errol Brown to capture sounds and stories to make the tapes created in a radio drama style. The project came about in the context of increasing the engagement of culturally diverse communities. The Hill Top project was amongst a series of Jubilee projects such as ‘Di Deh Yasso’, ‘Bickle’, ‘The Wedding Day’ and ‘Pardesi’ that sought to engage of Black and Asian communities in enabling and creating opportunities tell their stories in their own voices, to have a say in their representation and identity, to become co-authors in the means of production. While many of these communities were open to participation in the context of ‘happy to have my photograph taken’ it was, however, more difficult to openly share stories of their lives that they knew would be made public. They were very dubious and fiercely private. There were an awful lot of projects that 80% of the time always focused on just racism. Rather we wanted to also share stories of cultural celebration, showing strength and progress, these communities had endured being displaced, had skills and professions that went unrecognised, had been offered false promises in migrating here, experienced the feeling of being profoundly unwelcome in Britain.

The challenge was how to start a conversation about engaging in arts and culture.  I wanted to hear stories of people’s lives. But they would ask me, ‘Why is that important?’ or ‘Why bother?’ I asked people to bring in photographs of when they were younger, to play a kind of ‘who’s who?’ game. I decided to make the photographs literally larger than life by scanning them and then projecting them onto the wall. It gave a sense of occasion to the meeting and helped start up an enjoyable light-hearted conversation, a way of bonding. So we had all these photographs of members of the group when they were much younger, with beehive hair, top knots with curls, smartly dressed for a pose (often in a studio), gloves, handbags, and kids in frilly frocks, ribbons. Many of these photographs had never been shared outside of their immediate family. But each photograph began a story which the group themselves began to interpret and question. They became both interviewers and interviewees.

To accompany this I created an installation in the church hall that they could relate to. It represented the corner of a typical front room and they helped make this. Their curiosity was stimulated and stories began to unfold albeit around what should go in a front room. It was when this was happening that I had the idea for making ‘Tales from Hill Top.’ As a church group, they rightly wondered what a community arts organisation could offer them. They had told me of their constant need to fundraise for their activities; they did crafts and knitting and bible class, they had tombolas, sold crochet and other things. They wanted to know what could I do for them, what skills did I bring as a community artist? The idea making an audiotape, a physical object that could be sold, a little radio piece as it were, to share with a wider community, worked well for them.

We made little jingles with lyrics, had storytelling sessions – collecting, for example, the memory of someone getting lost on a train journey, childhood recollections of growing up in the islands, their grandparents’ memories, traditional folk stories retold in their own style. At the beginning of the piece, the whole group, of around 50 members, opened with a well-known gospel song – this announced their religious identity, led into stories from childhood memories, accompanied by ambient sounds such as water running or the sound of a train in the background dependent upon the nature of the story bringing the stories to life. Promotional adverts created by the group, often quite humourous in nature, were inserted between the stories. 500 tapes were produced and sold out in the first week. The churches are well networked!”