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Ruth, Martín & Me in downtown Medellín

To say a trip was “life-changing” is an awful cliché. But I’ve been trying to think of other ways to describe my time in Colombia, and I keep coming back to that one phrase as a fair and accurate description. I met such inspirational people, went to such challenging places and saw such incredible things, I won’t be the same again.

Maybe not everyone will notice the difference. Maybe nobody. But a different Andrew Dubber came back from Colombia than left the UK just over a week ago.

I had worried at first whether it would be disappointing to return to the UK and go ‘back to normal’ after having such a great time, but as the lessons of Medellín sink in, I’m starting to realise there isn’t any ‘back to normal’ any more. I have things to do and normal’s not going to get much of a look-in. I’m not disappointed to be back. I’m excited and I’m energised.

I’ll tell you a bit about what happened there, and then I’ll tell you what I plan to do about it.

Un-Convention

Press conference: Ruth, Martín, Jez and me

Un-Convention is an international grass roots music industry event. They’re all different, but their core goal is to help enable and encourage local independent music with informative workshops and panels, showcase gigs, and networking. They’re tailored to the place and the context – but they have a number of common threads that run throughout them: sustainability, new opportunities for music online, and above all, the idea of collaboration rather than competition as a basis for music enterprise.

A lot of people talk about the independent music scene as DIY. Our motto is ‘Do It Together’.

At the press conference that was held at the beginning of Un-Convention (video above), I spoke about the fact that what I thought I would have to contribute was not what was needed – and that what I could really help with, I had learned in my short time in Medellín. I mentioned a few infrastructural building blocks that I thought needed to be in place. I’ve been thinking a lot since that moment about what sort of building blocks I can help contribute.

The hip hop schools

The barrios of Medellín are still regarded as some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world. It was unsettling to have to write down the name and contact details of next of kin every time we got on a bus, but although we were always incredibly safe and well looked-after, that reality was still sitting there needing to be dealt with.

But we didn’t go to those comunas to witness the violence, but to witness its solution. Some of the most inspirational people I have ever met – El Mocho, Lupa, Medina, Fly, Henry, 3H, K-no, and others run community projects that get kids off the street, away from drugs, gangs, paramilitary and violence – and give them a purpose through music.

Lupa runs a studio in his house that operates as a drop-in centre. There’s the after-school project in the video above (link) that brings kids in and teaches them rapping, dancing and graffiti art.

They are strapped for cash, and they have very little equipment, but they have innovative and thoroughly professional projects that they run – concert events and funded CD releases – to raise money to keep those projects alive. What they do is amazing, and they do it despite sometimes incredible personal risk. Obviously, not everyone is happy with their success, and serious attempts have been made to discourage them.

Comuna 13

Nicolas translates and explains why we’re here

Our visit to Comuna 13 was perhaps the most remarkable chapter in what was a week packed with mind-expanding highlights. Read this Newsweek article about the place for background.

The bus driver made it very clear that he would not be hanging around after 6pm if we did not get back to the bus in time, but we made it high up into the mountain, into Colombia’s most notorious neighbourhood, to experience a welcome we could not have anticipated.

We were there to do two things: play soccer and listen to hip hop. And that seems like such an insignificant thing to do when I come to say it like that, but as Nicolas explains in the video above (link), it’s a hugely symbolic event.

It’s fair to say, of course, we were kind of rubbish at the football bit. I didn’t even play, voluntarily relegated to reserve status, and official cameraman. But at least I didn’t do any Riverdance…


Fallacy in goal, Jeff on the wing, and Teresa & Fee on inspirational Irish jig
[Video link]

Incidentally, that’s pretty much a sheer drop beyond that fence. That football’s not coming back…

The soccer match was followed up by some world-class freestyle rapping by Danny (aka Fallacy) – our Manchester hip hop representative – and some of the barrio’s best – including the incredible Radio MC.

This has to have been the most hip hop post-match function anywhere in the world:


[Video link]

The experience was one we will always look back on as one of those defining events in our lives.

Jez and Ruth both said to me that there was a moment, standing on that football pitch, overlooking the whole of Medellín away down the mountain, and looking around at the place and the people. That moment is difficult to sum up in words and certainly hard to do so without sounding cheesy – but it was utterly awe-inspiring, revelatory and affecting.

I think Danny summed it up best as we prepared to leave (already running a little late for that bus).


Danny expresses our collective feelings as Martín translates
[Video link]

And there were so many other inspirational moments throughout the trip. These two visits to the barrios were just a couple of the things that happened during those first two days. I think my brain stopped being able to process them all, and it will take a good long while to sink in.

Able to be of help
It’s one thing to witness these kinds of events and take part in visits to people who are doing incredible, important, transformative and genuinely life-saving work. It’s quite another to realise that you can do something to help.

The day after we visited Comuna 13, we were sitting in the Mayor of Medellín’s office, having a very nice lunch and a round table discussion – the first of several such discussions we had with influential people with resources at their disposal.

Jez expressed the importance of the work of our new friends in the barrio (who seldom get the chance to dine in the Mayor’s chamber) and that they be supported and encouraged.


[Video link]

Jez and I also had a number of meetings with Stephanie from Medellín Digital, an organisation dedicated to funding and developing projects about digital inclusion and participation within the city.

We pitched her a few ideas, most of which she was excited by, but one of which she’s completely running with. It connects to the hip hop schools project, but gives technology and skills to the other kids – the ones that can’t rap, paint or breakdance. It’s an online radio concept that will be piloted at a single school, but hopefully rolled out to the 50 other schools that fall under Stephanie’s remit.

The idea is for kids to create their own radio programmes, support that with digital video and other content, and upload it onto a blog. Each school will have its own ‘station’, and although most kids don’t have computers at home, they do have access to computers and internet at the school and the incredible local libraries they have in Medellín.

Kids will be able to play the local music, interview the musicians, and create their own content. It’s win-win: it provides a context and audience for the local hip hop scene (and rock, punk, cumbia or whatever else they want to play), and the students will have access to local music celebrities as part of the creation of their show. The videoblog and the radio shows that the students will make will give them a voice they’ve never had before, and encourage participation and (we hope) another reason to get involved with after-school activities that do not involve guns or drugs.

There’s already a pilot programme underway, and we were able to connect the people to start to make that happen, which was such a privilege.

Meanwhile, in India…

[Video link]

Back in November, I was in India with the Un-Convention crew – a slightly different combination of people, but including some of the core team. We visited a project in Delhi called Music Basti, which brings musicians out to work in homes for abandoned and at-risk children around the city to do workshops with them.

And while Music Basti is a very different kind of organisation to the hip hop schools in the barrios of Medellín, there’s a very clear thread there – and it’s one that has been occupying my mind more and more of late: music as a tool for social change.

It’s not really a new idea, and I’ve been involved with other projects here in the UK. I was on the board of community music organisation Sound It Out for a while, have worked with refugee musicians in Britain, and have done consultancy under the New Music Strategies banner with disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.

But for some reason, Medellín brought it all home to me. We had a fantastic time, and I fell in love with the people and the place for all sorts of reasons (not the least of which was the incredible stockpile of amazing second hand cumbia, salsa and latin jazz vinyl I was really only able to scratch the surface of – so to speak…).

Changed on the outside
I also met an amazing artist who, along with her brother, had designed all of the Un-Convention material. We got to know her over the course of the week, and admired her work – and especially her amazing tattoos. And despite having convinced myself that I would never get a second tattoo, on the grounds that my Otis Frizzell original was so special and meaningful to me – I had to have a Colombian tattoo, and it had to be by her.

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SaRita’s colour is amazing, her design is beautiful – and she only does one-offs. This one, she designed for me after a conversation about how I felt about the place, the experiences I’d had and also what I loved about her work.

The clever bit? When I look at my arm, I see a C for Colombia. When you look at my arm, you’ll see a D for Dubber.

So – I’ve come back not only changed on the inside, but also on the outside. That seemed appropriate.

The upshot of all this
It’s one thing to be moved by a series of encounters. It’s quite another thing to be changed by them, and it’s certainly the latter that is the case. Since beginning the trip back to Britain, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to all of this stuff, and a number of things have grown out of it.

The first thing is that I feel like I now have a sense of purpose like I’ve never had before. I am in a position to be helpful, and that’s what I need to do. Through talking with Ruth and Jeff from Un-Convention, Jez, Tasneem from the British Council, who we met with today, and Vijay, who organised Un-Convention in India, and has stayed behind in Medellín to make a short documentary about the hip hop schools, I’ve settled upon a project to try and join all of these threads together.

I’m starting the Un-Convention Foundation. It’s a separate (though obviously related) venture to Un-Convention and its purpose is to connect and, wherever possible, help develop these sorts of projects that are about music and media as a tool for social change.

I intend to work with city projects like Digital Medellín, but also at the grass roots level to try and source much needed equipment and resources for some of these projects (for instance – got a spare Technics 1200 turntable or a DJ mixer you’d like to donate to Lupa’s studio?).

I also want to work to join the dots between these projects. To connect diverse projects like Music Basti and the Medellín schools. To have people from one go and experience and learn from another.

Un-Convention Birmingham
And one way I’d like to connect those dots is to help Jez, Ruth, Jeff, Dan, Teresa and the rest of the brilliant Un-Convention team arrange Un-Convention Birmingham to be the first that has ‘music as a tool for social change’ as its core agenda.

Taking a leaf from Un-Convention Factory in Macclesfield, where bands recorded an album in a day, showing the whole production and release process from start to finish, alongside music industry seminars and events, I want to bring together some of the people from these projects – including those here at home – to record and release an album online, and use that to raise money to help contribute to those projects.

I already have some hopes as to what that album might be, and how it might connect Birmingham to this global concept, but I’m going to keep that under wraps, as it’s just an idea at this point, and one that will take some negotiating.

My initial idea was that the Un-Convention Foundation would slowly develop as a result of the Birmingham event next year some time. But everything to do with Un-Convention happens quickly and exponentially. I was talking to Vijay via Skype today, and he intends to have something running within 24 hours, so we can try and get some much needed equipment to the hip hop schools.

I’ll be sure and show Vijay’s documentary here the moment it’s available.

It’s all in the formative stages, and who knows where this could go – but I’ve never been so energised and committed to a project. A few of my friends who have seen my various projects and ideas come and go are familiar with my unwillingness to commit to a particular entrepreneurial venture, simply because it was just one idea of many – and entrepreneurs need to be driven by “the one”.

This feels like my “the one”.

Casualties of a mid-life crisis?
So perhaps the mid-life crisis has finally arrived. It’s not about sports cars and glamour models, and perhaps it’s no bad thing. But I’m not doing anything drastic. My job is still my job. My family is still my family. My house is still my home.

But there will be casualties of this newfound focus. I feel like I’ve been treading water so far this year – especially here online.

30-day projects are wonderful and inspiring, and I may return to them – but they are officially on hold. Don’t expect to see them again in a hurry.

My food blog project is also abandoned, 8 months into the one-year. It was a nice idea, and fun to look back on, but it serves no ongoing purpose and helps nobody.

I have a couple of potential book projects that I’m happy to set aside.

My photo of the day endeavour was nicely distracting, and gave me a good reason to blog about what I was up to in pictures – but I just want a fresh start with a new direction. 136 days, rather than 365 – and I feel totally comfortable just walking away from that.

Plus ça change…
There are other things that, of course, will continue. New Music Strategies is an increasingly important part of my life, despite being reasonably quiet on the internet. It’s an amazing team, with some incredible and inspiring projects in the pipeline.

I’m really excited to be teaching on the new MA in Music Industries at BCU and supervising my first PhD student. I’m also going to be publishing articles and presenting at academic conferences.

I’m very happy to be part of the Rhythm Changes research team, investigating European Jazz cultures.

I’m still co-writing a forthcoming text book for undergraduates, called Understanding the Music Industries.

But Colombia, and the people of Medellín have genuinely changed my life in deep and lasting ways. I never felt I was missing a sense of purpose, but having found one, I now understand the drive and commitment that the kind of people I admire all seem to have.

I hope I’m able to live up to this, and that it’s not just some flash in the pan post-trip enthusiasm, but whatever it is, I feel the need to do something, and this is the area in which I want to be doing it.

So far, Un-Convention Foundation is just a conversation. A lot will need to happen before it becomes a reality. But a lot can happen in a very short time when these people are involved. I’ve been over-using this word all week – but I mean it when I say I’m inspired.


This blog post, long as it is, just scrapes the surface. There are many more blog posts with video and photography from the Colombia and India trips at the Dubber and Jez blog.