Culture: High-fliers gain digital take-off; Andrew Cowen discovers how teenagers are learning the multimedia skills of music and film.
Multimedia is a bit of a buzzword these days. Cited incessantly in high-brow magazines, by internet pundits and media executives, to some extent it has been hijacked by professionals in the creative industries. Yet, on a street level, multimedia is a fact of life.
To a young Afro-Caribbean and Asian community, out of work and with limited access to cutting-edge technology, the experience of digital delivery of entertainment comes through the music and video work of their idols - singers, rappers and actors - on CD, through clubs or via MTV.
A ground-breaking series of courses at the Drum arts centre in Aston is giving this group of 15 to 19 year olds a taste of the skills and techniques needed to follow a career in music, film and computer-driven editing.
The Drum's Digital Impact course has been running for a year, and for 21 young people in the area it has been a real eye-opener.
Funded by the Department of Education's Neighbourhood Support Fund, the Drum and South Birmingham College, the course gives each pupil, on successful conclusion and assessment, a certificate equivalent to an NVQ level 2, a copy of their work on CD, plus the confidence and contacts to train at a higher level if they wish.
As the country's only arts centre aimed at the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities, the Drum is in the perfect position to reach groups not normally targeted by the industry. Tutors are drawn from the students' peer groups and the training is tailored to their specific interests.
A suite of top-of-the-range i-mac computers run the same software as professionals use.
As well as hands-on experience, Digital Impact offers much more. The courses are free and students, in classes of 12, take at least 10 hours' training a week over a 10-week period. They are assigned a mentor who works in the industry and may visit recording studios, film-makers and venues in Birmingham to see how the skills are used in a professional environment.
The Drum provides meals and pays transport costs for students. Participants also have free access to events at the arts centre for the duration of their training.
Errol Brown is one of the Digital Impact tutors. A seasoned community arts worker in music and video, he has a background of playing in bands and works with groups of young music-makers at the Drum, Walsall Youth Arts and Jubilee Arts in West Bromwich. He is also a freelance musician, composing music for television and radio.
He has just completed delivering his second Digital Impact course. Other courses have been delivered by video specialist Andrew Blissett and multimedia authoring expert Isa Saunders. Errol explains how he runs his courses. 'It's up to the students to come up with ideas for their work and they generally incorporate things from their day-to-day lives, where they're at.
'At first they're wary but I explain how multimedia affects their lives. A lot of CDs have videos included that can be played on computers and that's what they produce. Once they understand what multimedia is, they are really enthusiastic.'
Using digital video cameras, sound and software the students have produced work of a very high standard, all the more exciting since most of them have never used the equipment before.
Errol is delighted by the standard of work: 'Most of the young people I work with are mad about music. They want to be singers and rappers but have never thought seriously about taking it up. Although a lot of their work takes its inspiration from artists they admire, they see what others are doing and then bring their own ideas.
'I give them pretty much a free rein to do what they want, as long as they cover all the areas of the course.
'We start by discussing their ideas and then draw up a storyboard for the project. Using video, still images, text and music of their own or from CDs, they then put it all together. I also advise them on things like copyright issues and I try to answer any questions that they may have.
'Quite a few of the students record raps and voiceovers.'
Errol has seen how Digital Impact can instil ambition: 'Some of the students just have what it takes. I look at it and think 'you're going to fly'.
'Others find they enjoy different areas of the course more than others and may go away to explore the music side further. I know they get fired up - it shows when I talk to them.'
The next stage is for the pupils to enrol on further education courses and links have been made with South Birmingham College and the Learning and Skills Council to provide deeper training. This concept of partnership is central to the Drum's philosophy of aiming its courses at the local community. It provides avenues for recruitment and support.
However, word of mouth has been Digital Impact's best asset. After early teething problems in reaching target groups, places are now being snapped up quickly.
It's not just young men who are signing up. Bucking the national trend, the course participants divide pretty evenly across gender and the work of the young women has proved as entertaining and challenging as that of the men.
The next batch of courses is aimed at young Afro-Caribbean and Asian parents and childcare provisions are being made to allow them to attend.
With so much negative attention falling on the Newtown and Aston area of Birmingham, this small success story is making a real difference in the community.
For more information on the courses over the next year, contact co-ordinator Anita Kaushik on 0121 333 2431. Applications from young parents are particularly welcome for the next batch of training which starts on November 20.
Community arts worker Errol Brown teaches teenagers the way round a high-tech studio