Blog: Adam Sliwinski

The member of the Brooklyn-based percussion group Sō Percussion writes about communities built on mining, music and memories of his great-grandfather

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Our current show, From Out a Darker Sea, is about communities that thrived on and suffered from the 200 years of coal mining in northern England. The industry ravaged people’s bodies and lives. It was a horror show of dead brothers, mangled limbs, and respiratory failure. In its nineteenth-century incarnation, the men worked all day without the sun, walking sometimes an hour each way in four-foot-tall tunnels just to arrive at an allotted corner, and were only paid for what they brought back.

I think of my own great-grandfather, a Polish coal miner who died of black lung in the mines of West Virginia in his forties. The gulf between my life and his seems a chasm, but I got an inch closer to it when I descended into the mine that is still kept at the Beamish Museum near Newcastle.

I talked to men who were buried alive and almost died, a woman whose family fell into poverty when her father lost an arm and couldn’t work. My first instinct was to pity them for these experiences.

But they all, to the last one, believed that those were better times. Despite the physical hardships, the work represented dignified labour and camaraderie. The call centers and taxi driving that intermittently sprang up after the mines closed scattered the hardy teams of close-knit labourers, shredding the cohesion of their communities.

One man who had worked in the mines for decades told me he quit the call center within a week. “It was intolerable,” he said.

The majority of the older folks pitied the younger generation, whom they assumed would never know the joy of belonging to such a community. Every assumption I might have made about their lives based on those working conditions was complicated by talking to them.

We heard one other important thing. “This is not all we are.”

Most of the mines closed around 1985 after the great strike. Many of the people we met were born later. They are keenly aware of the history of the area, but don’t dwell on it every day.

Importantly, they live in a place which is more than a collection of abandoned mines. There are fields of resplendent yellow rapeseed, and windy cliffs that jut into the North Sea. The glass factories that operated upstream from East Durham produced a strange and unique pearl from the ocean, little glass stones, which nature smoothes from the refuse.

I loved walking along the beach and seeing what the ocean sent back. The beaches, which used to be totally black with soot, are clean now, and the sea continues to churn.

As artists, we don’t take it upon ourselves to try to represent everything we experience. Each artistic response and impression is a snapshot, not a totality. But perhaps if the artist is aware of the limiting frame of the shot, they don’t try to wedge every detail into it. Capturing an essence is all that can be managed.

The essence we found was the residue of coal mining via the human bonds that buttressed it. It’s hard to imagine the union songs and heroic stories and memories of coming together being transmuted through the current age of global sameness which the younger people experience similarly all over the developed world.

It would be crazy to think that people were better off doing this kind of unpleasant work. Valorizing it too much takes the focus off of the human toll it exacted. But there was some nugget of human need that it satisfied – an essential ingredient that we currently seem to lack everywhere. The members of this community felt that they were part of a social organism that bled and suffered and celebrated together.

Sō Percussion is on tour with From Out A Darker Sea in sacred spaces across the UK, opening tonight in Derby Cathedral and visiting Blackburn’s Holy Trinity Church, 30 Nov. To find out more and book tickets go to: forma.org.uk/projects/from-out-a-darker-sea.

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