Over the years many venues throughout Northern Ireland have been keen to encourage local and international musical talent to the country. In venues such as Limelight, The Harp Bar, Empire and also Mandela Hall, which have provided culture, diversity and much enjoyment especially throughout the countries turbulent past. In more recent years these venues have been a platform for young new talent to showcase their music abilities. However with the news that Mandela may be forced to close due to a rumored demolition what is the future for new music here?
Jonathan Hill reports on this investigation
(Pictured above) The majestic Queen’s home to many of the students whom have performed in Mandela.
(Pictured above) Rebekah Wilson- the latest musical talent to grace a stage in the students union.
Click the Youtube video links below to witness live acoustic sessions from some of the hottest new local musical talent in Northern Ireland!
For decades Mandela Hall has played host to some of the greatest and most influential acts in the world from “The Clash” to “Ella Eyre” the venue has been a corner stone for undiscovered acts and has been the stalwart of the local music scene in Northern Ireland. Now it looks as if Queen’s may put a stop to the venue’s musical heartbeat which could potentially jeopardise the future of the local Music Industry in this country.
This all started when it was suggested that Queen’s University would look at Mandela, its surrounding bars and also the entire Students Union complex as part of the further expansion of the prestigious University which began on other buildings in 2011. Since then various rumours have been surmised as to whether the building would be replaced or improved and if this was necessary, it had been suggested that due to practical reasons the venue needs attention due to Asbestos in the roof of the Students Union which has been a problem for buildings constructed prior to 1990. However no such statement or proposal has ever been released by officials at the Students Union or by the University in relation to this rumour. However Queen’s University have stated that while they are in “very early stages, proposals have been put forward for the redevelopment of the Students Union, to meet the growing accommodation needs and to provide a stimulating, engaging environment”.
It has also been stated that any proposals put forward for a face lift of the Students Union will be carefully analysed to ensure if anything goes ahead it will be within the interests of the student’s at QUB. The redevelopment plan was a result of suggestions made by former students who participated in surveys taken in 2011 which focused on how the SU building and the University as a whole could be improved. A factor which has been debated over, is the estimated and eventual cost of this proposed expansion, the new student centre were it to take place would cost approximately £24 Million.
Further questions have been raised regarding the existing bars located near the veteran Mandela Hall in the current Students Union building. The building also houses Speak Easy, Buna tee Bar and Bar SUB which have been a calling card for young musicians, all eager to play gigs in a lively setting in a bid to get their voices heard. “Queen’s Radio” hosted their successful “QR Underground” event which encourages local buskers, bands and solo acts to showcase their talents. It’s feared if Mandela and the current Students Union is replaced, despite best intentions that this may not only harm the student experience but could have an effect on young up-coming artists whom have performed in the SU building possibly for the first time in their lives. Which allows them to gain confidence and experience in a relaxed atmosphere giving them a feel for performance and allowing them to develop skills for their potential music careers.
Posing the question if Queen’s pulls the plug on Mandela what is the effect on the local music scene in the future. I spoke to students at Queen’s to get an idea of what they thought about the proposed redevelopment, many of them were appalled and worried about the impact that this would have on music opportunities for young people.
For example every year Queen’s Radio which is housed within the same building as Mandela Hall provides opportunities for local talent by getting gigs and also by getting people involved with music allowing them to gain skills and contacts for their future. However if the redevelopment goes ahead then the studio will be demolished with the rest of the building.
I spoke to Sarah Teggart, the current Station Manager at Queen’s Radio who said: “If the redevelopment were to go ahead I think that this could cause problems for many involved within the radio station. For example we have many students not only from Queen’s but also from Ulster and other forms of education as well, whom have become an integral part of the station. By presenting and hosting their own shows with their own desired content, we also welcome local and international Artists into the studio such as “Wolf Alice”. This allows young people to fully experience a high tech radio studio environment, enabling them to learn skills which they can adapt if the ever want to work in this type of industry in the future”.
Another factor which is also very important, if the proposed demolition of Mandela and the SU building takes place. Is the realisation that this would mean that facilities such as Queen’s Radio would be forced to stop broadcasting until the equipment was relocated to another part of the University which could take considerable time.
In connection with this I also spoke to Corey McKinney the Head of Music at Queen’s Radio who stated this: “In response to the idea of a new Students Union I feel that there are both positive and negative factors to this, there has been much talk of losing Mandela Hall and the impact that this will have. While I feel that Mandela is an awesome venue, it is only a small part of the entire Students Union complex. And in terms of the impact that this could have on local music, I think that this will be very minimal as Queen’s will make sure that whatever happens it’ll be within the interests and opportunities of students. There is a large following of people at Queen’s Radio who are very interested in the music scene, so I think that wherever the new studio is, this won’t impact upon opportunities for students. Also if the development happens there will be other music venues that will replace Mandela and while it will be sad to lose it. Overall I feel that a new building could only be an improvement for the students”.
Furthermore I spoke to Rikki Loftus, editor of student magazine “The Tab” who expressed her concern about the impact upon different societies within the Students Union, she had this to say: “As a student at the university, I feel very concerned that not only will student opportunities to engage with local musical talent be disrupted by the move. It will also impact upon many of the clubs and societies such as The Dragon Slayers gaming society, whom organise many of the very successful events for Queen’s Radio such as QR24. Where all presenters take up different slots on their own shows to participate in a 24 hour radio broadcast, which last year actually raised money for charity. So all in all I feel that a new building would have many negative impacts like halting the progress of Queen’s Radio, disrupting upcoming events and also making it difficult for new students to become involved with different societies while all the building work goes on. And I feel that this would have a bad impact on the students making their overall experience of university life less memorable which is so important especially in their first year”.
The final person I spoke to was Olivia Moore, a current presenter of her own Christian programme on Queen’s Radio to find out what her view was on the possibility of a new building, she had this to say: “I can definitely see the benefits of a new building, it would mean more facilities for students, however I don’t see the need or the reason to waste money. I mean people come to the students union and Mandela Hall in particular, because it is fun, it’s familiar and it’s a place where people can make new friends even if they don’t go to university. I mean Mandela Hall has a very special kind of atmosphere, it’s somewhere were all ages of people can mix and find things in common through their love of music. And because of Mandela’s uniqueness I just don’t see them being able to create that kind of buzz in a new students union, I mean there really is nowhere else like that in Belfast.”
Throughout my investigation for this article, Queen’s University have remained very tight lipped regarding whether this building project will happen and whether or not Mandela is to be completely replaced or improved. One factor that has been clear though is that this issue has created much diversity, dividing student opinion.
While the future of Queen’s students union and Mandela Hall in particular remains unclear, one factor which is apparent is that for many, the venue holds a very special place in their hearts. As somewhere to meet new people, have fun and to create memorable experiences, whereas for other students the venue doesn’t matter it is the people not the building that counts. For now though Mandela continues to do what it does best playing host to new international acts such as indie group “Little Green Cars” as well as providing a platform for new local acts like “The Fugues” and “Rebekah Wilson”.