‘The right to gather and play music in public spaces is very important to us and it is one of the civil liberties that are currently being eroded in many countries under the guise of national security.’
As I read Ms Sowerby’s words-the interview was conducted electronically, since I am somewhat beached in Limassol and she is currently living in Marseilles-I contemplate about the different extends to which so many of our civil liberties have, indeed, been not only eroded but in many cases denounced and trampled by our self-styled liberal establishments.
Back in 2015, on the evening of Friday 13 November, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris and its northern suburb, Saint-Denis. During the days that followed the ‘Paris Attack’, police had used their newly-given emergency powers like an early Christmas present, in abusive, discriminatory and unjustified ways. Amnesty International had plenty an overtime those days and nights. Warrantless house searches and hundreds of curfew orders; families with children waking up to 20, 30 police officers bursting into their houses; people handcuffed with police pointing firearms against them; you name it. Citizens were unsure which type of terrorism was more threatening.
Under a security threat all which we take for granted collapses in a matter of seconds; when major survival issues arise, humanity’s masks fall and along with our external enemies, our in-house barbarians make a grand appearance, in a stage that reminds us of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
A clear sign of decadence: When the right to gather together and create art and joy in our public spaces is eroded, this is the point on the curve where we can be sure that a civilization has already failed to protect its core.
Hope restoration: When people like Katherine Sowerby keep creating joy and culture; when they keep fighting to attract the social rhythm to the beat of their drum even when, situationally, they could just let go and follow orders of terror.
Ms Sowerby, what do you usually make sure that people know and understand about you, when a new friendship or relationship begins?
I don't have any intentions to convey any specific information about myself. I try to stay open, curious, grounded and come from a place of love. The rest happens naturally.
Which role do you usually have in the group of your closest friends or family?
I am often in the role of observer or mediator. I try to understand people; where they are coming from and help to resolve conflict. Otherwise, I am often the one who comes up with new ideas and suggestions. I seem to be able to inspire people to follow me in my crazy projects and unwittingly find myself in a leadership role.
Where did you grow up and how did it form your personality and dreams?
I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Reading in the UK. Living with my one brother and two disabled parents, our family was quite isolated and we rarely had other people come to the house. I enjoyed my primary school years and had lots of friends. I was always creating projects and clubs, designing logos and fundraising and inspiring others around me to participate. I used to spend my free time writing stories, poems and songs and drawing cartoons. My mother was artistic and even though she always seemed to find reasons not to do her art, she put a high value on creative activities. From a young age, my parents took my brother and me to learn to dance and play music.
My secondary school years were tough and my creative side went into retreat as I dealt with an oppressive and hierarchical school environment, and a turbulent home life. I suffered from a lack of confidence and went into a long-term mild depression that I only came out of in my mid-twenties. In the meantime, I developed as a classical percussionist and a dancer of modern jazz and tap thanks to my private training.
Creativity (composition, choreography or improvisation) was not developed or valued during my studies in or out of school so I worked on that side of myself in the privacy of my bedroom. I would spend hours writing my journals and composing music. This secret world was one of the few things that kept me going during a difficult time of my life.
I knew I wanted to pursue my creative and artistic activities but I can't say I had any specific dreams for my future life. I didn't have many examples around me of people who worked in the arts, apart from my teachers, so I didn't really know what options existed.
I did have many daydreams though! I used to fantasise about being able to fly and of uniting people together in the street with music - everyone dancing together. I also believed and fantasised that I was one of three people sent down to earth from an alien planet, with a mission to find the other two and return home! I am still searching!
Do you have friends from your childhood or student years still around in your life?
Not so many. I am very close to a couple of friends from University but no one from my school years. I was rather ill with M.E. for most of my twenties and I didn’t have much of a social life so I lost touch with a lot of people.
I have, in the last few years developed a close relationship with my brother that I never had when I was younger. It was a great surprise to discover that we had so much in common: our sense of humour, interests and our way of seeing the world.
What do you do when none of your friends want to go out on a Saturday night but you very much feel like it?
I never restrict myself from going somewhere if no one wants to go with me. I have travelled a lot on my own and often go out alone. Being alone opens you up to the world in a different way. You engage more with your environment, you are more receptive to people and more aware of what is going on around you. I often hear from women that they won't go out alone in the evening, especially here in Marseille. I have gone out alone at night all my life, in many different cities--New York, Sao Paulo and Recife in Brazil, London, Paris… I go out with the minimum necessary--20 euros and my house key; I walk in a relaxed but confident and purposeful way without fear. I think this is one of the reason why I have never had any problems. Fear can sometimes attract its object, and looking vulnerable might make you an easy target.
How do you spend your weekends, usually?
I love to dance but I don't often find what I'm looking for in Marseille—a big dance floor and funk and world music, that is! Otherwise, I’m often at home researching or watching documentaries on the internet. I am very intrigued by alternative histories, quantum physics, conspiracy theories and alternative theories of reality. I am pretty sure the current mainstream view of the world is nowhere near the real truth.
I also have a lot gigs with my Brazilian percussion group, Ilu Axé, in Marseille. We play for many community events and sometimes at protests or marches. The group is not aligned with any specific political movement but there are certain principles that are inherent in the philosophy of the group and the music we play. The right to gather and play music in public spaces is very important to us and it is one of the civil liberties that are currently being eroded in many countries under the guise of national security.
What’s your idea of fun and joy?
I would define fun as temporary amusement gained from doing an activity. A word I like is 'play'. I think if I had to give someone advice for living, in one word, I would say 'play'. Life should never be taken too seriously, especially the 'system' we live in. It's all a game. It is best approached with the attitude of a child - curiosity, open-mindedness, experimentation, interaction and joy. I would define 'joy' as our natural state when we are at one with the present moment. Joy is the rejoicing and celebration of being alive and experiencing the magnificence of everything around us, without attachment to expectations and outcomes.
What do you enjoy creating the most?
I enjoy creating. Anything. It is the creative process that drives me, more than the goal and it can be any form of activity - experimenting in the kitchen with strange combinations of ingredients, drawing, writing teaching material, and devising games and exercises, finding solutions to problems. My usual medium is music. I am currently composing for Tchicada, a body percussion and a cappella voice group. I love working with restrictions and minimal resources - I find it brings out my creativity. If there are too many possibilities I get stuck. Working only with the body forces me to seek out all the undiscovered sounds that the body can make and transform them into music!
What makes a person ‘creative’? Can a medical surgeon, a lawyer or a public administration executive be equally creative?
I believe creativity is an approach and can be applied to anything. It's about imagining something that does not yet exist and making it happen. It's about seeing what is around you and knowing that it could be done differently. It's about not limiting one’s notions of what is possible by what currently exists in our immediate environment. It's about visualising something in the mind and then going ahead and making it a real.
You find creative people in all jobs - they are the ones who find solutions to problems, design better ways of working, improvise in crises, offer new perspectives in their fields.
What would you create with a 100,000 euro art/creative activism grant?
I would like to set up projects for children and adults that help do what the education system often fails to: help people develop essential living skills. On the program I would include meditation, dealing with emotions and non-aggressive communication, improvisation (in music, dance and theatre), group singing, body music and drumming and self-sufficiency (growing food, basic practical skills, living in harmony with nature). I know there are alternative schools that work on these principles but the vast majority of children are educated in hierarchical, top-down learning structures with the emphasis on regurgitation of facts rather than learning through sensual and experiential discovery and experimentation. The big questions about the universe and our place in it are rarely asked and the emotional, spiritual and social dimensions are severely neglected.
When did you first acknowledge yourself as an artist and what did you do with it during your journey?
I have never really attached myself to the title of Artist, and I don't feel it would serve me to do so. Society may have more use for it, as a way of explaining why I spend my time making, and showing other people how to make, strange sounds with the body, instead of being sat at a desk shuffling paper!
From time to time, my ego may be happy to prop itself up with the title Artist, with a large capital A. But it may equally use it to beat me for not having produced work of sufficient merit, or success to warrant such a title. In reality, I 'am' whatever I am doing at the present moment - be it hanging out the washing, sleeping, doing my taxes or writing a piece of music.
What is Art’s role in society?
Art is part of the discussion and the research for who we really are. It can be an expression of emotions and ideas. It is often a form of nonverbal communication that bypasses the intellect and connects with something more primeval, subconscious or a higher conscientiousness. It can trigger memories and communicate information and ideas.
Art has always had a role in revolution and social and political movements, though it has also equally been used as a way of controlling people, manipulating social groups and maintaining the status quo.
I believe that in the future we will better understand the nature of music and sound and its effects on us. From a personal, but non-scientific perspective, I can say that something profound happens energetically when a group of people come together and sing, or play drums together. The vibrations that are created have a real effect on people. We have a hard time describing what it is because we cannot see it and our language lacks words to describe it. It is this that bonds the players of Ilu Axé, it is due to this that the group is growing all the time. People get something from playing that they don't find anywhere else in their lives.
‘I am a woman’, Pablo Picasso once said, and: ‘…every artist is a woman and should have a taste for other women. Artists who are homosexual cannot be true artists because they like men, and since they themselves are women, they are reverting to normality.’ I wonder how this sounds to an artist… Thoughts?
This is a strange quote because Picasso starts by declaring himself a woman but then we understand quickly that when he talks of artists he is talking only about men. I would say he is recognising (in a very tongue-in-cheek way) that the female energy is important and that it is part of all of us.
What do you think the ‘feminine’ force of life/universe is composed of? Could you point to some expressions of that force/element?
I don't really like putting labels on things or compartmentalising, especially in a social context. Traditionally, we tend to say that the female energy is more creative rather than destructive, that it is sensitive and nurturing. I would agree up to a certain point with these generalisations, but I tend not to talk in this way because I am wary of them being taken in too much of a 'black and white' way and used to pressure people to conform to societal norms. I would encourage people not to try to label things but, rather, to be open, curious and non-judgmental.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of all the people who resist the pressure to conform, but live and work in line with their own values instead; the people who see the problems in the world and decide to dedicate their lives to creating solutions and alternatives; the people that courageously expose and fight against corruption and oppression. All these people who knowingly or unknowingly form part of a global revolution.
What is your deepest fear connected to? Is it holding you back from attempting, or fully enjoying something?
I am often held back by a fear of doing things badly, or of making mistakes and having regrets. I often get stuck making decisions when I don't have much information available to me and I have to take a chance and rely on my intuition.
Is fear the opposite of love?
Yes I would agree with that. When you are in a total state of love you cannot feel fear. When I say love I am talking about the absolute form – the universal unconditional love that people often achieve through spiritual revelation or practice, not the narrowly-defined social definition of love that is directed towards one or a few people in our lives.
How would you define love to a ten year old child, Ms Sowerby?
I might say that love is that warm glowing feeling when you look up at the stars and feel that you and everything in the world are connected and part of the same magical universe.
Is there a favourite story you often narrate with words, paint or rhythm, song and movement?
I like to encourage people to question the status quo and received wisdom, and the system that we live in. I also like to push the boundaries around the definition of music. When I teach a Body Music workshop I ask everyone to demonstrate all the sounds they can make with their bodies. Often, people have little techniques and funny noises that they have never shared with anyone! In my workshops, these are validated and accepted by the group and they are added to a palate of sounds that we use to express ourselves. It's all done with humour and playfulness.
If I had to define a main message that I would like to convey with my work, I guess it would be this: Play and don't take things too seriously. Stay open, question everything. The truth is inside each and every one of us.