Lorraine Ayensu is a musician and works as Asylum Support And Refugee Integration Team Manager for Bristol City Council. Aged 44, she was born in Salford, Manchester but spent most of her childhood in the North East of England.
Refugee Week is June 16th-24th.
Q: What’s the best thing about living in the South West?
A: I moved here from the North East about 20 years ago and what immediately struck me was the music scene here. I realised that Bristol is a very interesting creative environment - there seems to be an inordinate amount of creative people here with different ideas and there’s a willingness to share and collaborate as well. I’ve noticed that people here also do things for the sake of doing them, not necessarily always for money.
What would you like to see more of in the area?
Two things: Firstly, more safe cycling. It’s very precarious and quite dangerous using a bike in this city. I used to cycle into work but I actually now walk because I’m too scared. Secondly, more opportunities to recycle plastic.
What’s been your biggest achievement?
Recording my most recent album Last Conversation. If your creative pathway is music it’s always great if you can get an album together. Being able to record my work is something I really appreciate – it’s a way of measuring progression. I wanted to get as natural an acoustic sound as possible, but with a number of musicians on it. I went through the whole stress of delivering the thing and then the inevitable self-doubt once I’d finished it. You need a bit of time to reflect between doing it and feeling okay with it – I’m very pleased with it now. I’ve had great feedback and my plan is to keep playing live and selling it through live gigs and the website.
What inspires you?
What inspires me are the creative achievements of others. It doesn’t matter if they are famous or not, it’s just really great when people achieve something creative that they wanted to achieve.
There is also just a drive inside me. I need to express something - a lot of my creative endeavours are to do with my experiences of being on the outside and the idea of belonging.
What sparked your interest in music?
I can’t even remember how I first got hold of a guitar, but I was about 12 and I think I realised straight away that music was a way of expressing and dealing with my personal feelings, it was also a way of helping me be in control of my feelings too. It’s played a massive, massive role in my life – I couldn’t live without music, I just wouldn’t be who I am without it. It’s been my solace and my place of refuge really and I will do it till the day I die.
How have your life-experiences shaped your music?
I was put into care immediately after my birth and lived in a children’s home before eventually moving to a trans-racial foster placement. So, the beginning of my life was profoundly shaped by the knowledge that I was other, I was different. Obviously, this is not the worst experience in the world, many people suffer more than I did and I am in no way a victim, but those experiences do shape you. I was the only black child in school and as a child you really want to fit in, you don’t want to be so different that people stare at you and call you names. That “sticks and stones” phrase is not true, words do hurt you, and when you’re actually physically attacked, which has happened to me, that’s no joke.
But I had enough care and love in my life to be able not to see it as all doom and gloom, and as the only script to live by. I had to learn how to deal with the fact I am different and in my early adulthood I began to draw on those experiences of being marginalised and tried to turn it into a strength and confidence. My songs tend to be written in a way that others can relate to – whatever the subject matter, I tend to favour writing to include rather then exclude.
What drives you mad?
The misrepresentation of asylum seekers. Little things don’t usually bother me, I try to tell myself life’s too short.
How did you become involved with Refugee Week?
Working with asylum seekers and refugees resonated with my own experiences of being on the outside – it’s not the same experience, don’t get me wrong, but there is a commonality there. What’s really important to me is to try to raise people’s awareness of asylum and refugee issues. One of the things I do in my work is to try to move towards inclusion, rather than exclusion.
It’s all about a celebration of differences. We aren’t all the same, we have all arrived here for different reasons and in different ways but we are all here now. How can we celebrate the fact we are here now? Hopefully Refugee Week goes some way to doing just that.
What’s been your biggest mistake?
Having a gig in Cardiff and forgetting to take my guitar! Really embarrassing. Fortunately I managed to shoot back and get it before the gig started.
What was the last cultural event you enjoyed?
I’d have to say last year’s Refugee Week, especially The Big Fun Day on Sunday. It’s the coming together of people and the effort people make that I really love. People from all local communities and different backgrounds coming together to learn more about each other. One of the best things about it is that people get involved and then go off and become inspired to do their own thing in their own community.
What’s your favourite book?
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – just beautiful.
What’s been your best holiday?
When I went to Andalucia. I was basically in the middle of nowhere in the mountains and it was just amazing – so quiet and peaceful. All you could hear were birds and the occasional ringing of the goats’ bells.
How do you relax?
I love going down to Devon and Cornwall and seeing the sea. Also, I like to exercise. I used to compete as an amateur in middle-distance running and I still go running occasionally. The other thing I do is listen to music, or sit on a park bench in the fresh air, somewhere I can watch people and see some green.
What has life taught you?
I learned that whatever has happened in the past, you will continue to meet new people and that it’s important to trust people. Give people a chance, there are opportunities for exchange all the time, if you want them and are open to them.
Lorraine’s music website is: www.lorraineayensu.com
see also www.bristolrefugeeweek.co.uk
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The opinions expressed here by Lorraine Ayensu are her own personal views and not those of the Asylum Support & Integration Team at Bristol City Council.
Interview by Fiona McClymont
First published issue 49 (Summer 2007)
Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.