Your Voice Matters: NYJO at The Talking Shop | Beth Ismay

June 28, 2024

On 24 April 2024, as NYJO’s Learning Programmes Manager I had the pleasure of visiting The Talking Shop in Blackwood, Caerphilly alongside 4 NYJO Emerging Professional (18–25-year-old) musicians. NYJO and The Talking Shop are partnering together as part of our wider work in the Rhondda Cynon Taff region to support music-making in the area, as well as to develop our understanding of music as a tool for social engagement. You can read more about the context for our partnerships in RCT here.

Founded by Yvonne Murphy, The Talking Shop is a shop ‘which sells nothing and where ideas, information and conversation are free’. The concept is to transform a disused shop into a cultural and democratic hub, where people can drop in to engage with arts and creative workshops, as well as receive information about registering to vote, engaging in our democratic processes and finding out more about how our national, local, and devolved governments operate.

I visited as a co-host for the day; my role was to chat to people as they arrived, make sure they were aware that there was plenty of free tea available, and to answer any questions that they had about the Shop and the creative activities taking place. I spoke to someone who had come in for one of the Welsh Wednesday sessions that they were running, where people have the chance to drop in and practice their Welsh language skills. She told me that she grew up in Blackwood and had lived here her whole life. We spoke about paths not taken and how small choices can impact the shape of our lives, but also how different doesn’t necessarily mean better and the value in being proud of the choices that you have made.

I also spoke to the team who lead the Welsh Wednesday classes and heard how many people come in saying that they don’t speak any Welsh, and then almost immediately start sharing phrases and songs that they know or heard growing up. I chatted to a 14-year-old boy who is making music in his bedroom – writing lyrics and learning guitar from YouTube videos online. I spoke to a man who visits the Shop regularly and who told me how much it meant for him to have a space that he could come to where he felt safe and heard. I also had a conversation with a man whose wife had passed away a few years ago, and he shared some of the things that had given him comfort as he processed that grief.

Overall, there was a lot of chatting! But that sits at the heart of The Talking Shop – the idea that conversation can bring us together, help us to understand one another better, and consider the world around us. It was really interesting to bring four of our NYJO EP musicians into this space, as this is a process that we’re moving through with them now. As we shape ourselves as an organisation that is led with our young people’s voices at its centre, it is really important that we understand how to truly listen to them, and that they in turn feel confident that their voice matters to us and will be heard.

One of the key statistics that underpins the concept of The Talking Shop is how research from the Cultural Learning Alliance has shown that students from low-income families who engage in the arts at school are 20% more likely to vote as young adults. Democracy as a concept only works if everyone truly feels the power of their own voice; your vote matters, your opinions matter, you can make yourself heard.

I wonder if one of the key reasons that engagement with the arts ultimately increases young people’s democratic participation is because, at its best, the arts are all about helping people to understand the power of their own voice. When a new member of our Under 18s programme feels confident enough to improvise for the first time, when a young person on one of our holiday projects writes and performs their own lyrics in front of others, when one of our EP musicians hears their original composition performed by the band; these are those moments that underpin the work that we do, and that show the musicians we work with how much their individual creative voice matters.

The four musicians that joined me at The Talking Shop performed as a quartet for the people visiting; they answered questions about jazz and shared their love of music with the community. It was so special to see how excited visitors to the Shop were about the distance we had travelled to perform for them, and I hope it made our musicians feel really valued as creatives. I also hope that the visit encouraged them to consider how they want to use their voice moving forward, both within NYJO and without.

At The Talking Shop, I was thinking about the huge number of musicians who have used jazz as a vehicle to share their voice with the world. When Sun Ra used his music to communicate a vision where he encountered aliens on a spaceship who told him that he was responsible for saving the Black race, he was telling us that we need to radically reconsider the world that we are shaping for ourselves and the social and political limitations that we impose across our society. In ‘Mississippi Goddamn’, written in response to the 16th Baptist Church bombings in September 1963 where four young Black girls were killed in a white supremacist attack, Nina Simone gave voice to the urgent need that she too saw for us to reshape society: ‘All I want is equality / For my sister my brother my people and me’. These are words that she herself sung in front of James Baldwin at the Selma marches of 1965; on a makeshift stage built from stacks of empty coffins lent by local funeral homes in front of an audience of 25,000 people, Nina Simone turned jazz music into a powerful, raw cry of rage at a society that failed to protect these children.

Since its formation, jazz has always been an artform that helps people channel their voice to push for change and to fight for what they believe in; it is radical in its expression, artistry and, often, in its political engagement. As we shape NYJO for the future, I hope that this developing partnership with The Talking Shop will encourage us to find those moments with our members where we can pause and reflect together – what matters to you? What do you want to say? What change do you want to feel empowered to call for in the world around you? These are questions that so many musicians before us have used jazz to answer, and it is the urgency of the answers that they have found to these questions which has driven the artform forward. Our musicians will, therefore, be in good company by asking them! I can’t wait to see how their answers move our organisation forward, revitalising the music that we make together and challenging the status quo.

Lucy-Anne (EP quote)

“Since joining NYJO, I’m so much more confident as a performer. Especially in terms of being able to entertain and keep the crowd engaged with you. It’s really nice to be able to feel that difference.” 

Lucy-Anne, NYJO Emerging Professional (Vocals)

Georgia (EP quote)

“It’s hard to just learn this music in the practice room but being immersed in the music at NYJO is a great environment to really push my playing. ” 

Georgia Ayew, NYJO Emerging Professional (Drums)

Sam Eastmond (MD quote)

"Giving them space to create whatever they wanted, without setting parameters of idiom or style helped them to conceptualise how they could bring these new concepts into their work without scaring them off, or mystifying the process."

Sam Eastmond, NYJO Educator

Jazzwise quote

"NYJO has never been conformist, never hewing to one particular line, never known for fawning replications and very deliberately these days a vehicle for new possibilities."

Jazzwise Magazine

Lydia (EP quote)

"The past year has been an absolutely incredible experience, pushing me way out of my comfort zone into playing with some of the greatest young jazz players of my generation and getting to call them my colleagues and friends has been beyond inspiring, and also an obscene amount of fun!"

Lydia Cochrane, NYJO Emerging Professional (Saxophone)

Anna (Learning national quote)

"[The NYJO residential in Cumbria] helped me to make friends with other young musicians. I enjoy playing a lot more and I’m quite proud of what I’ve accomplished. I feel more confident now. I have learnt different ways of coming up with solid melodies and also a little bit on harmonies. I think it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had."

Anna, NYJO Learning Widening Access participant

Briony (Learning U18s quote)

"I’ve felt very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing musicians, and I think that the environment at NYJO – which has fostered creativity and improvisation – has allowed my confidence and musical ideas to grow."

Briony, NYJO Under 18s

Oscar (Learning U18s quote)

"I think I’ve progressed a lot in my piano-playing. NYJO has helped me to flourish and really enjoy it. I’ve really enjoyed being engrossed in a high level of playing and learning things in a hands-on-way. I also like the diversity of perspectives and abilities of all the players and teachers which enables me to try things I might not normally."

Oscar, NYJO Under 18s

Jennie (Learning U18s quote)

"NYJO has got me listening to more jazz and learning more changes. It has also helped with working as a band. I’ve really enjoyed the free jazz, learning by ear, the people, and the atmosphere."

Jennie, NYJO Under 18s

Leah-Anais (Learning U18s quote)

"I love the people at NYJO. Everyone here is so encouraging and lovely and it makes the experience worthwhile. Though I have fun I’m still learning on the way which makes me feel productive too."

Leah-Anais, NYJO Under 18s

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