Musical magic

An album of songs has been written and recorded by young people working with music industry professionals. Saba Salman was on the guest list

Young people recording music for The Kent Album Project

Love, community, creativity, ambition, determination and a gentler pace of life are among the concepts celebrated in an album of music by young people with learning disabilities.

The Kent Album Project, launched at the Gulbenkian Arts Centre in Canterbury late last year, features original songs inspired by the 13 districts of Kent and Medway. Each track was written and recorded by autistic and learning disabled young people from each area.

Chatham-based charity Square Pegs Arts worked with more than 150 young people and 65 local organisations over two years to create songs celebrating Kent and its young creatives.

The charity gathered groups from schools and community organisations. Abilities and backgrounds varied, but all were inspired by their communities to compose lyrics and ideas for melodies in a series of songwriting workshops.

Square Pegs then took participants to professional recording studios around the region to work with producers and session musicians and create songs for commercial release.

The tracks include On the Up from the Swale group, with lyrics including: “Now I’m free to be me, and living life without a limit could just be our destiny.” The Gravesham group’s song, Take a Look Around, observes: “In a world that moves too fast, sometimes we need to pause and make the moment last.”

Seen in a new light

Nadia Higson, whose music-loving adult son Peter took part in the Tunbridge Wells song, Tunbridge Wells Rocks, says: “Peter has a very limited social life so it was lovely to see him engaging in a creative group activity and having his ability to improvise a tune appreciated. Also, I think the friends and family members with whom I shared our track suddenly saw him in a new light as someone with skills of his own.”

The project, as Nadia says, enables people who are so often overlooked to show what they can do. She adds: “It also provides a great boost to their confidence. I know from talking to others that the recording sessions made them feel like rock stars! They were bubbling over about what they had done.”

Peter, who is autistic, was invited to take part in the album through Sevenoaks-based inclusive music group Band without Boundaries, which he joined a year ago.

We wanted to give them all an unforgettable experience put out work to a professional standard

He has had keyboard lessons since he was 12, has passed his grade 8 exam and loves performing and all kinds of music, especially jazz and swing. Peter has played at the Maidstone Music Festival and in amateur local concerts.

For the project, he joined a workshop last summer at a primary school in Tunbridge Wells. Participants worked in small groups, crafting lyrics and melodies, with Peter composing a tune on his keyboard to accompany the words. His playing forms the introduction to the final version of the song.

Peter says “It was fun. I enjoyed the workshop where I played the keyboard. At the launch, I enjoyed the film and listening to the songs.”

Paul Richards from Square Pegs Arts, who is music lead and project manager for the Kent Album Project, explains what sparked the idea: “We wanted to reach new young people and spread our work across a wider area. We’ve been providing projects and opportunities for nearly 20 years but tend to have the same, albeit fairly large, cohort of young people sign up and we wanted to find a way to include more people.”

He adds that the charity was keen to work more with others: “Collaborative work and practice sharing is mutually beneficial but so many groups and organisations, especially the small ones, don’t always have the capacity to make it happen.”

For the charity, a focus on the abilities of the participants – not their disabilities – was vital.

Paul says: “We feel passionately about bringing the best out of each and every person we work with and allowing them to shine in a dignified, legitimate way.

“We believe that this album has done exactly that, not only in allowing them to learn about the songwriting process but also to visit the top studios in Kent to record and work with industry professionals to showcase their musical ideas and talents.

“We wanted to give them all a truly unforgettable experience and to put out work to a professional standard in the same way as any established recording artist would do.”

Another highlight was the collaborative, inclusive approach regarding differing abilities.

Gillian Buisson took her sons Luke, 20, and Daniel, 13, to the Tunbridge Wells sessions. Daniel helps to care for his older autistic brother. All three joined in.

All together now

Gillian says: “It was a fantastic day out at a recording studio. We were treated like we were celebrities doing a recording. This was the most amazing thing about the project – at no point did it feel dumbed down for special needs. It was adapted to be inclusive but still allowed everyone to input at whatever their level was.”

She adds: “So often, we just have something that is solely for the special needs person or solely for carers. This project was so different as both were included together.”

When Luke, who does not usually speak much, saw his name on the big screen at the album launch, he beamed at his mother and said: “That’s my name.” And Gillian recalls that when the family heard the song for the first time, Luke said: “That’s me, I think I heard me.”

The Kent Album Project is available to stream on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes and YouTube

Photos: Timothy Leek