“We will be each other's refuge, we will be each other's home” is how the song “Home 3” goes. It was one of my favourites during the week I was lucky enough to spend in São Paulo when the Mouthful Quartet from the UK held a residency with the youth choir of the Guri Santa Marcelina project based in Brazil's largest city.
It was also one of the Guri youth choir's favourites too, I suspect: not just because of how much they clearly enjoyed singing the punchy percussive sounds, fantastic arrangement and uplifting melody, but because it expresses something all of us experienced during that week and know to be true: when we sing together we create a safe space for each other, a sense of being at home.
I was one of four representatives from Uma Só Voz project in Rio de Janeiro which runs choirs for homeless people, many of whom live on the streets. Our choir director, Rico Vasconcellos, volunteer Marcela Rodrigues, and intern Pablo Basulto also came on the trip funded by the British Council. The exchange was aimed at giving us extra training and capacity building as choral directors.
At the first rehearsal on Monday, I was overawed. Guri's youth choir is made up of the most dedicated singers from their 46 “polos” or hubs around São Paulo city and state, many of them based in low income, deprived neighbourhoods. The choir had only had four rehearsals with the new material prior to Mouthful's visit but you would never have guessed. They knew all the songs, all the parts, and nailed everything that was asked of them.
I confess this also made me anxious. The Guri youth choir and the Uma Só Voz choirs seemed poles apart. Here were young singers who had been studying music for several years, could read music, and sing four part – even eight part harmonies – with confidence. With one or two exceptions, none of the Uma Só Voz' singers can read music - some can't even read. Many have mental health problems, others physical problems after months, in some cases years, of living on the streets.
As the week progressed, we also watched Mouthful deliver workshops for parents and children at some of the Guri polos and we took part in open workshops for music teachers and students. All four Mouthful members, Katherine Zeserson, Bex Mather, Sharon Durant and Dave Camlin, seemed to tap into a limitless energy which allowed them to work for twelve hours or more each day. Despite the packed schedule, every morning when we joined them in the minibus they would already be in full song, rehearsing their numbers.
We scribbled down, recorded, and took photos of all kinds of inspiring exercises, games, songs: a fantastic exercise Katherine gave us where everyone brings a song that represents home and then 'speed dates' other people's songs to find suitable partners to make a mash up; a game called rhythm machine shown to us by Sharon where people choose a sound and a gesture to add to the human machine growing in the middle of the circle; a beautiful song by Bex about starlings 'Flocking Off' in the evening for which the youth choir created their own choreography under her guidance; a touching meditation and reflection led by Dave where he asked the youth choir to close their eyes and imagine the people who love them most standing behind them, with their loved ones' loved ones, in turn, behind them, going back through all the generations of our ancestors.
Dave used this reflection to introduce 'Stone Acoustic', a song he wrote in recognition of the fact that humans have always sung together, ever since the dawn of time. And that's when it dawned on me. Yes, we have always sung together, even before music was annotated, even before we divided the notes up into octaves, probably even before we invented words.
So it doesn't matter if we can read music, read, or know the difference between the tonic and the dominant. Singing is something that has the power to bring us together: in joy, sorrow, love, solidarity.
It is this affirmation of the healing quality and equality that comes from singing in a group that we took back to Rio - as well as all the many artistic inspirations and insights we gained during our week in São Paulo.
Our singers in Uma Só Voz's choirs might not have physical homes that they can call their own, they might not feel part of a society that ignores and excludes them, but when they come together to sing, they can create a bond and a community where, for a few hours at least, they can feel at home.
By Jan Onosko