Q & A with Tessa Burwood: Brum Spirit

So you may have noticed we have under gone a little rebrand of late? Incase you were wondering what it is all about we got together with Brum Spirit project organiser Tessa Burwood to explain in her own words whats been going on behind the scenes.

Name: Tessa BurwoodTESSA IMAGE

Occupation: Co Director of Professional Incredibles and Brum Spirit

From: Wales and Cornwall (big up the Celtic massive 🙂 )

Live: Balsall Heath, Birmingham

Q) Tell us about your job?

A) At heart it’s about encouraging positive connections between artists, audiences, businesses and communities in Birmingham, supporting them to create together and share their world views. It’s also about producing parties out of magic hats in unexpected places, getting covered in glitter, dancing like there’s nobody watching and appreciating the small things that make our city and its people a fabulous place to live and work.

Q) How and why did you get into doing what you do?

A) That’s a huge question. I was working at the time as a journalist for BBC WM back in 2008, and had taken the week off to help interpret at WOMEX, as part of what was then West Midlands World Music Consortium.

This huge confluence of music industry professionals from all over the globe was so inspiring to me – I found a place for myself in the mix, helping people network and build relationships in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English.

I lost my voice over those five days, and came back buzzing with all the potential and possibility of such an inspiring sector. Shortly after that, I decided to quit my job and start out on my own in cultural production. It was quite an impulsive decision – I was very young and naïve at the time – and the Credit Crunch hit just as I was starting my first project (the launch of Jo Hamilton’s album Gown (2009), with Poseidon Music and Arts DeVille).

What a huge learning curve that was!

Shortly after that, I met creative practitioner Soesen Edan, and we set up Professional Incredibles. Our goal was to bring together touring and locally based artists on the Brummie circuit in unique live settings.

Five years later, we are still growing and learning, PI is still in business, and I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by such inspiring people, who truly add value to the lives of others through their creative endeavours.

Q) How did Espirito Brum begin and what were your creative ambitions for the events?

A) This cultural exchange evolved from a chance conversation in a taxi in Seville, just as WOMEX was winding down back in 2008. We were offered the opportunity to run the UK edition of Espirito Mundo, in partnership with Instituto Quorum – a production company based in Vitoria, Espirito Santo, Brazil.

Having lived and worked for some years in Brazil, the country’s culture, music and language were already an important part of my world view. We knew the project could be really positive for Birmingham, and we like a challenge, so in 2011 we held the first edition of Espirito Brum at The Edge and PST in Digbeth, in partnership with community arts stalwarts Friction Arts.

Espirito Mundo gave us the opportunity to host visiting artists from across Brazil right here in Birmingham, and to open creative collaborations with UK based artists and communities. It was something we just had to make happen, and we worked as part of Espirito Mundo for three years, as part of a Europe wide circuit, before striking out independently.

So far we’ve hosted over 100 artists from Brazil and other nations, in collaboration with over 300 artists from Birmingham and the wider UK.

The connections we forged through Espirito Brum also led to two tours of Brazil in 2012 and 2013, where we helped 25 British artists work across five cities.

We held music workshops in charities and universities in Sao Paulo, concerts in a 5000 capacity amphitheatre surrounded by monkeys in a jungle park in Belo Horizonte, large format photography exhibitions in Vitoria, and a few more unexpected adventures besides.

Q) What are your own personal highlights from Espirito Brum?

A) Our Welcome to Kings Heath Mural, that’s the most satisfying thing yet. Also, catching Rioghnach Connolly and Dea Trancoso teaching each other their favourite tunes, back stage at The Edge in 2012. This year’s edition of Rebel Spirit – just check out the video 🙂 Learning that Brazilians find tea with milk a bit weird. Too many blessed memories to recall here!

Q) How has Espirito Brum developed?

A) In 2014, we decided for several reasons to part company with Instituto Quorum and Espirito Mundo, and evolve into Brum Spirit. We wanted to open out the exchange to reflect Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nature, and we were determined to continue empowering artists to work in an atmosphere of respect and professional development.

Also, the name just fits – Brum Spirit – it rolls off the tongue right? Things have evolved over the years, but we’ve managed to keep going, and aim to remain true to our original aims – to build a project as welcoming and eclectic as Birmingham itself, and to celebrate the simple pleasures that keep us humans sane in this crazy world 🙂

Q) Why is it important to try something new with someone new?

A) Variety is the spice of life! We all know that, and it doesn’t have to cost much to try new things. We put on free, family friendly events for this reason – just like the daytime activities at Muzikstan Midsummer Festival.

We want to open the doors wide and attract as many people as possible, from all walks of life, out of their houses and into each other’s company, so they can make and do stuff and share thoughts and play games. That’s what makes a neighbourhood more resilient.

What is happening in Brazil right now?

A) Well, I’m not an expert, but right about now in Brazil I know there are just over 200 million people getting on with their lives, across a huge and divisive socio economic spectrum.

There’s also a sports tournament going on, apparently 😉

As we bathe in the green and gold glow of all the ruckus surrounding FIFA Rio 2014 and all it entails, it’s easy to forget that, until just 30 or so years ago, the nation was atrophied by violent military dictatorship, and some would say little has changed on the streets.

There’s an astounding level of income inequality, a woeful lack of true rule of law, exacerbated by a “pro rich tax system”. Check this out – I squealed when I read this: Brazilian citizens earning more than 30 times the minimum wage are taxed at about 26%. Meanwhile, those earning less than twice the minimum wage are taxed at 48%. How does that work?

While more private helicopters are chartered in São Paulo each day than anywhere else in the world, the nation’s richest 1% earn the same income as Brazil’s poorest 50%.

A study by the US Embassy in Brasilia in 2010 revealed over 23,000 street children working in highly dangerous sectors from construction to animal slaughter, over 75 Brazilian cities, and according to the Latin Business Chronicle, corruption costs the national economy over $41 billion per year.

This is not comfortable reading, and it’s just a broad overview. In the context of the World Cup, however, it’s important to look at such statistics.

The other night I watched the opening match between Brazil and Croatia at PST Digbeth, alongside Brum Spirit veteran and Brazilian reggae singer Jota III.

Jota summed things up like this: “You know what, all across Brazil right now, despite all the challenges my people are having to face, you can bet your bottom dollar they’re putting it all to one side just for these 90 minutes, to celebrate life together. The positive changes we need to make will come in time, if we really keep our eye on the ball.”

Q) Why are international collaborations important?

A) When people agree to take an adventure together across what appear to be the barriers of difference, they are more often delighted by all the things they have in common, than troubled by the things they don’t share.

At the same time, such a confluence of differing world views and perspectives allows us to gently interrogate the social issues and paradigms that shape our lives today.

Beauty and inequality exist around us all, in our every day lives, and sometimes we are too wrapped up in our own particular outlook to really see this in detail, or be able to make objective and positive changes.

By opening up our homes to visitors from other lands, and agreeing to share our space with someone unknown, the every day routine becomes special, and the delightful process of sharing and learning together comes into its own.

Q) Why Brazil and Birmingham?

A) Why the heck not ey? The Brazilians who have visited us over the years are ambassadors for their country on their way in, buoyed up by all that confidence that is part and parcel of being from a nation with so many riches of so many kinds.

After their time here, in a city most have not heard of before their arrival, they become ambassadors for Birmingham. That is a really special result of this exchange.

Our city can be so deferential and unassuming, despite its powerful history and growing influence. That’s part of its charm and its strength, as well as something that can hold the city back.

It’s a huge boost to hear from those who visit us from Brazil just how welcome they feel. I remember when Dragões de Komodo came with their wonderful manager Adriana Franco, back in 2012. It was the first trip out of Brazil for this São Paulo based hip hop collective, who are at the forefront of a thriving conscious underground movement across their home nation.

They are also family men, poets, teachers, students, sports fans, foodies, counterculture lovers and proper gentlemen. They had no idea what to expect, some of them spoke no English, and when they arrived they were tired, a little nervous, and freezing cold.

We took them home in Soesen’s van and made them supper, then went on to Jazz at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth, where the landlord John Tighe introduced them to Guinness and a true Brummie Irish welcome. At the end of their first evening, the boys realised they were sleeping in my bedroom, which I’d made up for them for the week.

I told them, “Vocês estão em casa / This is your home.” They slept for about fifteen hours on that first night, and woke up fully ready to work their genuine charm on Birmingham’s hip hop scene.

By the time they had to leave, they’d taken about a million photographs of the varied cityscape and its people, performed 5 shows across Brum, filmed a music video and recorded vocals for an EP, fallen in love with fish and chips, and forged a whole bunch of creative partnerships that are still in force today, through their co productions with Munchbreak and DJs Feva and Switch.

Experiences like that make this whole project worth all the effort it takes to organise. I’m sure Brum Spirit will evolve to include exchanges with other places – that’s the plan anyway – but this Brazil / Birmingham vibe is really special, and I wouldn’t change it for all the samba in Salvador ;).

Q) What is the best part about working in Birmingham?

A) The people, and the Brummie sense of humour. Surprising every time.

Q) The worst?

A) Local politics – it’s a challenge to see beyond ourselves and look at what can be achieved when we work together.

Q) What is your favourite place in Birmingham?

A) The Rea River Valley.

Q) What makes you proud about living in Birmingham?

A) If someone tries to be racist in public, they are invariably laughed out of the room or off the bus.

Q) What one thing would you change about the city? 

A) We need a night bus service. Oh my gosh, just found out it’s happening next month for the 50 route! OK, we need better cycle routes.

Q) What one thing you would champion?

A) Our independent music industry, in all its glorious variety.

Q) What is Brum Spirit and what does it mean to you?

A) It’s about tolerance, open mindedness and really appreciating a good masala fish and naan.

Q) What has happened recently that gave you Brum Spirit?

A) Yesterday I saw a young Sikh dude and his Jewish mate skating together through New Street, sharing a packet of Hob Nobs. Classic.