It was great to hear Birmingham Clarion Singers feature on Radio 4's series 'Choral History of Britain' with Jane Scott and Annie Banham giving very good interviews. The programme also featured Greenham Common and the role of women singing at the peace camp. Both Birmingham Clarion Singers and Greenham are vital elements of the story of the development of street choirs in Britain. Our Campaign Choirs Network writing project is forging ahead nicely with a few chapters 'in the bag' that feature stories from street choir members across Britain. Hearing the Radio 4 programme has re-energised us for all the hard work of writing, editing, proof-reading... Excitingly, there's a really talented artist working on the cover of our Singing for Our Lives book due out next year from Hammer On Press. Hopefully the next episode in the series 'Choral History of Britain' will provide more food for thought and inspiration.
After weeks of head-down working on Singing For Our Lives - actually having a wonderful and challenging time, working with and learning from everyone on the S4OL team - I (Kelvin) took a day off yesterday. I chose to go to Cardiff for a mooch about and - of course - ran into the irrepressible Cor Cochion Caerdydd. They were taking a big part in an action against cuts to public services. As usual, they'd put the effort in to make their singing a real piece of street theatre. It was an honour to sing a couple of songs with the Red Choir. And they're surely right, what is the point of Labour if they don't oppose the swingeing budget cuts being forced on them by the Conservative government? All our councils, whoever controls them - Plaid CYmru, Lib Dems, independents - can't keep saying 'there's nothing we can do, it's Westminster'. True, if they resist individually, they'll get hammered. But if they get together, say a collective and resounding 'NO' and demand the money that they need, they might actually put a stop to the brutality, maybe even bring down this crass government that should by rights be in its death throes, and win back the respect and support of the people. And look, in the background of these photographs, whose name is embossed in gold! 'Save our public services, this is not the only way out!'
More posts to come on the fabulous get together of revolutionary choirs that was held near Royère-de-Vassivière last week, but for now here are a few photos. To be honest, we were so busy learning songs, singing, preparing meals, and talking with members of choirs from France, Italy, Belgium and Britain that there wasn't much time for taking pictures!
(who is that comrade singing with the basses? No, it can't be, can it?)
On Wednesday, two of our intrepid researchers will make their way overland to France to join Strawberry Thieves and members of Cor Gobaith, Raised Voices and perhaps other British street choirs at the Rencontres de chorales révolutionnaires 2017 (the meeting of revolutionary choirs). The gathering takes place near Royère-de-Vassivière in Nouvelle-Aquitaine (east of Limoges). It should be an amazing experience that yields some great stories as we join radical choirs from France and Italy for a week of singing old songs and new. (see you in a couple of weeks!)
Some photos of the choirs meeting last year, including the combined international choir signing in Tarnac (home of the Invisible Committee)
Thrillingly, our project now features on the blog of our publisher, Hammer-on Press! Thrilling but a bit scary too because now we get to re-read the more then 40 interviews we've carried out with street choir members across Britain and select excerpts to go into the book, Singing For Our Lives. Reading the interviews is a great job to have but choosing which bits of the collective story to leave out will be really difficult: we want to do justice to everybody's story; and everybody we spoke with had something special to say.
Here's a an excerpt from an interview with Jane Scott, conductor of Birmingham Clarion Singers that reveals something of the long and unique history of this street choir:
"We did a concert tour in the German Democratic Republic in 1977, so there was that kind of international thing. Going back to the fifties, well to the end of the forties actually, we have performed with Paul Robeson in Birmingham town hall, we did a piece by Earl Robinson called The Ballad for Americans. I think he was friends with quite a number of people on the left in Birmingham, particularly one chap Ruscoe Clarke, I think an American, whose wife Avis Clarke was in the choir… Anyway when he (Robeson) went back and lost his passport we campaigned, we did a lot of campaigning, on that. And when his passport was returned and he came over it was, coincidentally, just at that time that Colin Bradsworth died… So, we asked Paul Robeson to be our president, which he was gracious enough to do. So, he was our president then from, was it nineteen fifty-nine (or) sixty, till he died in, was it, seventy-six… That was quite exciting, (we) performed with him a couple of times…"
Although almost everybody probably knows it, I only just discovered this, essentially, animal rights song! A little confusingly, it's also know as 'Donna, Donna' (and originally 'Dana, Dana', it seems). Joan Baez sings the most famous version, but it's a song with quite a history. If you haven't heard 'Dona, Dona', listen, learn and enjoy like me.
Looking up versions of Asikatale because it was one interviewee's favourite song, I found this version by The Spinners from 1988. Hardened by frequent exposure to moving songs, hearing this made me choke up. A combination I think between this being a beautiful song - one of my own favourites to sing, the harmonies and spooky bass, and the total respect The Spinners obviously pay the song with their careful enunciation...
Many street choirs combine singing this song to commemorate the struggle against apartheid and, at one through revised lyrics, to support the ongoing struggle of people in Palestine.
As a p.s. I noticed that The Spinners sing 'It's gonna take some real men' where we now sing ' real strength'. I wonder what we're singing today, with - like The Spinners - all our passion and the best will in the world, that will sound politically incorrect in the future? Which oppressions are we currently unaware of?
Asikatale We are the children of Africa, And it's for freedom that we're fighting now We are the children of Africa, And it's for freedom that we're fighting now (Chorus:) A heavy load, a heavy load, It's gonna take some real strength A heavy load, a heavy load, It's gonna take some real strength We do not care if we go to prison, If it's for freedom then we'll gladly go We do not care if we go to prison, If it's for freedom then we'll gladly go (Chorus)
They took our lands, they took our homes - How much longer will they bleed us? They took our lands, they took our homes - How much longer will they bleed us? (Chorus) In Soweto, they shot us down, But we will stand up united In Soweto, they shot us down, But we will stand up united (Chorus) (Zulu:) Asikatali, nomas'ya bozh, sizimiseli nkululeko Asikatali, nomas'ya bozh, sizimiseli nkululeko
Transcribing all these interviews with street choir members is really hard work... But doing it ourselves, listening again and painstakingly two-finger typing almost every word and be faithful to the meaning of the communication, that's vital, we think. And as you slog away you are constantly rewarded with fascinating insights that rekindle the research flame, making you wan to understand more. For example this morning, I transcribed this: ‘I mean, I had thought about joining - there is a Pride choir, you know, there’s a Rainbow Choir here in Leicester. Although I’m still very pleased to be with Red Leicester, really, because I think, to be honest, I think Red Leicester’s politics are probably more mine… I don’t know the Rainbow Choir very well, but I feel more confident about Red Leicester’s sort of solidarity really, as a left-wing choir. I think probably the Rainbow Choir would be more mixed: I suspect; I might be wrong but… So, for me, politics was always the most important, really.’
I think Leicestershire Rainbow Voices are now defunct, but there a Midlands, Birmingham based Rainbow Voices
Re-Reading David Graeber's 'The Democracy Project' about Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which in such turbulent times now seems a lifetime ago, two quotes stood out for the Campaign Choirs Writing Collective project, the book 'Singing For Our Lives' which will be published next year by wonderfully supportive publisher HammerOn Press:
'OWS, in contrast (to the Global Justice Movement mobilisations 1999 - 2001), is not a party, it's a community. And it's less about fun, or not so much primarily about fun, as it is about caring' (p.240).
‘On the streets, creativity is our greatest tactical advantage. This is why clowns and spiral dance rituals and women in tutus armed with feather dusters were so effective during the Global Justice Movement’ (p.255).
‘I think music goes straight to the soul, and it makes your body literally move, that’s changed, you get goose-bumps, you feel you want to dance, you want to scream: like, music does change people in a very literal way. It makes sense that it can move people to create other kinds of movements.’ Kate Nash on The World This Weekend 28 May 2017 from around 53 mins