The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton

Natalia Senior-Brown, Windrush Square, opposite Lambeth Town Hall.  Originally part of Rush Common (and so protected from development), Windrush Square was named for the vessel that brought the first large group of post-war West Indian migrants to the UK, many of whom were housed on nearby Coldharbour Lane. Today, it's a focal point to celebrate local and national Black British experience, home to the Black Cultural Archive and the UK's African and Caribbean War Memorial, dedicated as recently as 2017. Natalia - who is used to playing with artists like Jorja Smith, Bastille and Celeste - played near sunset to the bemused, if appreciative, crowd of locals and skateboarders who can always be found there.

Exhibition: my portrait series showcasing the diverse young musicians of Brixton Chamber Orchestra, while celebrating Brixton’s history & present, is released with a bang.

Updated April ’22: The series is a Finalist in the Documentary Category at The AOP Awards 2022.

As a longtime Brixton resident – 20 years this autumn – I was incredibly excited to encounter Brixton Chamber Orchestra (BCO) on a marching band fundraiser in early 2021.

They were so talented and energetic as they passed down the street, that people came out of their houses to watch them and gangs of kids followed them down the street. The vision of this diverse young group of musicians just seemed to fit Brixton streets – and I immediately knew I wanted to take a series of portraits. See video below for a flavour!

Wake Up Brixton

Rocking Down to Brixton Past, Present & Future

BCO conductor & founder Matthew O’Keeffe liked the idea, so I set about shooting over the Summer Estates Tour, when the group tours Lambeth housing estates to bring a classical and contemporary repertoire to a wide audience.

At one level, my mission was simple. Capture these players and their instruments while they made music in non-traditional local spaces.

But these places also have history. With the 40th anniversary of the Brixton Riots this summer, and projects like 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance exploring the repercussions of those events, it felt important not to create a series of outsider’s picture postcards of Brixton, but include places that resonate to those who know the area.

Mebrakh Houghton-Johnson, Brixton Market, Electric Avenue: Immortalised in the Eddy Grant song that hymns the 1981 Riots, Electric Avenue was the first UK street to be lit by electric power and once boasted Victorian-era glass and steel canopies that ran its whole length, sadly lost in the 80s. Today, it is the beating heart of Brixton, with a daily market providing every kind of African, Caribbean, South American and Asian foodstuff and product, and more characters than you can count. It is rarely quiet and Mebrakh went (almost) entirely unnoticed as he played.
Ana Vandepeer, Angell Town Estate, looking onto Brixton Road. Principal violinist of Brixton Chamber Orchestra, pictured here at Leys Court, North Brixton, looking on to Brixton Road, ahead of a Summer Estates performance. The development was built in close consultation with residents, to replace the formidable and fortress-like 1970s Angell Town concrete block estate which taxi drivers often refused to enter. Open, light and close to the road while centered around communal spaces, Leys offers a very different living experience tailored by and for residents.
Jaga Klimaszewska, Brockwell Park, Hurst Street Estate in the distance. Originally from Gdansk, Poland, Jaga now performs worldwide after studying at Guildhall and Royal College of Music, but her London home is with BCO in Brixton, where the Victorian-era Brockwell Park in which she was photographed is now a cultural melting pot. Walk through the park on any given summer Sunday and you pass from Caribbean-flavoured BBQs to Central American cook ups to West African feasts, in the space of a few hundred metres.

We shot in iconic spots like Electric Avenue, Windrush Square and at the Bowie Memorial, but also amid the bustle of local traders on Station Road and Market Row.

We went to Atlantic Road, close to the front line of the Black communities’ confrontations with the Met Police in 1981, but also to the heart of local estates like Angell Town that have been changed in quieter ways by their communities.

We captured musicians in the serenity of Brockwell Park and the Cressingham Gardens estate, but also found moments of unexpected peace and light right in the centre.

As I shot, I found I wanted to show people a Brixton they know and don’t know – to make rich, full images that were engaging portraits, while also elevate local places with a perspective or fullness of detail that shows them afresh. 

Deronne White, Brixton Station Road, outside The Rec Centre. A founding member of BCO, Deronne joined whilst still studying at Royal Academy of Music and says Brixton "always feels like home." We shot on Station Road opposite the listed-building 'Rec' leisure centre, regarded as one of the last areas possessing an authentic Brixton community feel. Despite the recent railway arches overhaul and the prospect of the ‘Rec Quarter' redevelopment, the collection of cafes and shops occupying the railway arches, and daily market traders, together with locals shooting the breeze, still combine to give it a living identity.
Ruby Moore, Tunstall Square in front of the Bowie mural. Painted in 2013 as a tribute to the Brixton-born singer, the Bowie Mural became an impromptu shrine and site of pilgrimage for fans after his death in 2016, and seemed a fitting spot to photograph Ruby in performance, an approving Aladdin Sane looking on… Despite a position right on the high street, it can be a remarkably peaceful spot.
Teigan Hastings, Cressingham Gardens Estate. A self-taught player and remarkably assured young man, Teigan joined BCO for the Summer Estates Tour 2021, age just 15, after seeing the roving band performing down his street and asking to audition. He hopes to join the Navy and become an engineer.

Big in Brixton

Exhibit of portraits from the series The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton Exhibition Space

Happily, BCO‘s first member event, at The Department Store in Brixton, made for a perfect moment to launch the images.

Working with marketing manage Silas Armstrong, we created a series of captions to tie the photos to their locations even more closely, and with the help of print maestro Richard Wills at another Brixton institution Photofusion, created an exhibit fit for 200+ guests.

Around performances of everything from classical to hip hop (and fusions inbetween: think rap meets The Rite of Spring), the audience of Brixtonites let us know that the shots, and the treatment of the area, passed muster.

I celebrated with – appropriately – a can of Brixton Brewery Lager!

Exhibit of portraits from the series The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton Exhibition Space
Exhibit of portraits from the series The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton Exhibition Space
Exhibit of portraits from the series The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton Exhibition Space
Exhibit of portraits from the series The Street Orchestra Bringing Classical Beats to Brixton Exhibition Space

About Brixton Chamber Orchestra

Learn about BCO’s programme of performances and events, and how to support them: