This is Harmony, a community choir I lead in the inner city area of Burmantofts in East Leeds.
In September 2010, after several years of working with almost exclusively white community choirs, I posed myself a question: is it possible to form a choir that reflects the multi-racial make-up of its community, including refugees and asylum seekers? Could singing help bring people from very diverse backgrounds together?
I thought I would tell you a bit about Harmony by focussing on some of the choir’s favourite songs.
Deep Down in My Soul – a traditional song arranged by Gitika Partington (Community Voiceworks)
Sometimes when a new member who is an asylum seeker joins, they have a reticent, depressed stance, stand slightly apart from the group with folded arms, just looking, not moving, not joining in. Maybe their English is limited; maybe they just don’t know what’s going on.
Maybe they have come for any of a variety of reasons other than to sing. Maybe they’ve heard we give asylum seekers £4 for their bus fare, so have come to supplement their weekly income (which can be around £36 a week, or in some cases literally nothing at all).
If they stay, after a few weeks they have begun to join in with the singing, Deep Down is a wonderfully up-beat song, with simple repeated phrases and a swinging rhythm that make it quite quick to pick up. But its three short parts also make a satisfyingly complex song when sung together, giving a great sense of achievement. It is an excellent way to get people who are totally new to harmony singing doing it without realising.
Singing Deep Down, I see peoples’ physical demeanour and facial expressions change – smiles appear, eyes light up, bodies relax, people loosen up and move to the music, and crucially, they start to engage with other choir members.
About two thirds of our members are asylum seekers, a troubled life comes with the territory. Some are destitute, many have physical or mental ill health. More than anything, this song has a strong message of hope: “I know that one day, I’ll be free, deep down in my soul”. For a short while people can forget their troubles and leave with heads held high and a spring in their step.