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Côr Gobaith, the first ten years (hopefully)

corgobCÔR GOBAITH celebrated their 10th anniversary at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday (Apr 30) with a concert which was at once rousing and reflective.

Over the years, the choir has become a feature of Aberystwyth’s cultural landscape, beloved of many people.

Following Social Forum Cymru in Aberystwyth in 2006, Susie Ennals decided to form Côr Gobaith. Social Forum Cymru was a Wales-wide gathering of civil society groups sharing ideas and looking for new ways to work together.

Susie had previously sung with Côr Cochion, Cardiff’s almost legendary socialist choir. Susie told the Herald: “On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, and there was a celebration in the town where I was living.

“I heard a group of people singing We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. It was a song of hope, and that momen t stayed in my memory. I knew that day that I wanted to raise my voice and sing about peace, justice and freedom from fear.”

Côr Gobaith’s first rehearsals took place in people’s front rooms and even in a squatted social centre. Among the choir’s founding members was, for a short time, Molly Scott- Cato who is now an MEP for the Green Party. Many people of note (sic) have passed through the choir’s ranks over the years.

Some of Côr Gobaith’s other founding members brought with them a political sensibility derived from participation in Greenham Common Women’s Peace camp.

This sensibility continues to make a significant contribution to the ethos of the choir. History records that women from Wales were key players in the camp which began in 1981, lasted for 19 years, and continues to influence social movements worldwide.

Over the years, Côr Gobaith became an important part of many members’ lives as they found comradeship and musical fulfilment through the choir.

While still in school, co-founder and editor of the EGO Paddy O’Malley sang with Côr Gobaith in its early days. Unable to attend Saturday’s performance, he sent a message to the choir: ‘To think that 10 years has passed is terrifying. Please pass on my congratulations to everyone! I have always had such a great admiration for you all.’

Hope in the dark

Côr Gobaith is committed to peace, justice and environmental sustainability. Drawing its members from as far afield as Machynlleth and Lampeter, Côr Gobaith is a street choir, determined to bring music and a politics of hope into public space. Roughly translated into English, the choir’s name is choir of hope.

Since the choir’s inception, Côr Gobaith has sung in Owain Glyndŵr Square on Aberystwyth’s Great Darkgate Street on the last Saturday of every month come rain or shine. And, let’s face it, in Aberystwyth it is too often the former!

A perennial problem for the choir is stopping banners, signboards and themselves from blowing away. Initially, this regular slot was a collective commitment to sing until war in Iraq ended and British involvement ceased. Nowadays, the commitment is to general principles of peace, justice and sustainability.

Côr Gobaith busks to raise money for local and international causes and campaigns. Often, the money raised is donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors Without Borders). Côr Gobaith has also sung for Medical Aid for Palestinians, Welsh Women’s Aid and Aberystwyth’s Freedom from Torture group.

One member of the choir Lotte Reimer said: “It’s always worth the effort of turning out even when it’s tipping it down. Singing together lifts the spirits and if only one person stops to listen that’s great. Every time a child comes over and puts their pennies in the collecting pot to help victims of war or refugees, I almost choke up. But we keep singing, always!”

The white poppy

One of Côr Gobaith’s long term hopes was realised last year when red, white and purple poppy wreaths were laid together at the war memorial in Aberystwyth on Remembrance Day. The white poppy commemorates all those who die in wars, civilians as well as soldiers, and symbolises a commitment to peace. Created in 2006, the purple poppy is for animal victims of war.

Dating back to 2004, Aberystwyth has had two separate remembrance ceremonies, one laying red poppy wreaths, the other white and purple poppies.

In 2015, after white poppy wreaths were torn from the memorial and stuffed into waste bins, participants in the two ceremonies began a reconciliatory dialogue. With members of Côr Gobaith and Aberystwyth Peace and Justice Network to the fore in negotiations with the Royal British Legion, agreement was reached on a single shared ceremony. Côr Gobaith sang a version of Sibelius’ Finlandia as part of the remembrance service in St Michael’s church.

Côr Gobaith believes that the result is testament to the mutual respect that can be fostered through open dialogue and that the shared ceremony is a credit to the town. Town and County Councillor Alun Williams who facilitated the dialogue said: “It’s always easy to find differences, but it became clear that the different people wanting to lay red and white poppy wreaths actually had much in common.”

Street Choirs and solidarity

Côr Gobaith attends the Street Choirs Festival every year and has sung at these festivals in Manchester, Brighton, Sheffield, Bury, Hebden Bridge and three times in Whitby. In 2013 Côr Gobaith hosted the Street Choirs Festival in Aberystwyth. Refusing to rain on their parade, the gods smiled on the town that day. In beautiful sunshine thirty-six choirs totalling some seven hundred people marched down Penglais Hill to sing together on the sea-front.

Choirs from all over Britain then busked around town before an evening concert at the Arts Centre featuring all the choirs. The Festival received the support of many organisations, people and businesses in Aberystwyth, not least the Arts Centre and Town Council. It raised money for MSF, Welsh Women’s Aid and Radio Bronglais.

After all the bills were settled, donations made and a sum passed on to the next choir to host the festival in Hebden Bridge, Côr Gobaith used the funds that remained to help plant a Peace Tree in Aberystwyth’s Queen’s Square in February 2016.

The tree, a white flowering cherry (Prunus Umineko) symbolises the ongoing commitment of diverse groups and individuals in Ceredigion to working towards non-violence and peace in the world.

The choir were delighted to join with others in the town on the Peace Tree project, including Aberystwyth Town Council and Parks and Gardens, CND Cymru, Aberystwyth Quakers Religious Society of Friends, the Morlan Faith and Culture Centre, Capel y Morfa and Women in Black. As the choir celebrated ten years, the Peace Tree had been in full and splendid bloom.

At the Street Choirs Festival in Aberystwyth, Côr Gobaith’s Lotte Reimer was instrumental in forming the UK-wide network Campaign Choirs. This network serves to help street choirs support each other, especially in local, national and international campaigns.

Participants alert each other to protests, demonstrations and other events, often co-ordinating a singing action that includes members of several different choirs. Campaign Choirs is also a forum for sharing songs.

Campaign Choirs now has more than ninety members and represents over forty choirs. The network has already involved more than twenty choirs in taking collective action.

Actions have included Liverpool Socialist Singers inviting other choirs to sing together in a national demonstration against fascism organised by the Unite trade union; the Natural Voice Practitioners’ network issuing a call to ‘Belt it out at Balcombe’ against fracking; ‘Sing Trident Out’ in Basingstoke; an anti-drones protest at MoD Aberporth, a No NATO rally in Newport, Gwent; and at Britain’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation in London in February this year.

Home and away

Côr Gobaith’s archive records that the choir has sung at almost 200 protests, festivals, concerts and community events over the years. Regular festival dates include Raise Your Banners, an occasional festival of music and politics held in Bradford, the annual All Wales Peace Festival, now sadly defunct, and El Sueño Existe in Machynlleth.

Lotte Reimer narrates an amusing tale from El Sueño Existe. “Some members of Côr Gobaith sang with the folk singer and former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Iwan as part of an All Wales blockade of the Trident base up at Faslane back in 2006. The next time we met him we were on stage just before him at El Sueño in 2009.

“We sang his song Cân Victor Jara about the much loved Chilean singer and activist who was killed by Pinochet’s brutal regime in Chile. It’s a really powerful song and we sang it well, I think. But word got back to us that Dafydd Iwan had been going to sing it himself. So, we stole his song and his thunder! Luckily, he didn’t hold it against us.’

At Faslane in 2007, again as part of a Wales Day of action against Trident, three members of Côr Gobaith were arrested by MoD police before the choir even started singing.

The arrestees sang in their cells, anyway, while undeterred the rest of the choir sang as part of the blockade. The choir’s archive records that MoD police are not fans of choral singing.

Côr Gobaith also regularly raises its voice at RAF Aberporth in opposition to the testing of military drones there. In 2014 as the choir and others sang on the traffic roundabout outside the base, a police sergeant not only halted the traffic but insisted that impatient motorists turn their engines off and ‘respect the singing’. Only in Wales?

Côr Gobaith sings on International Women’s Day, Hiroshima Day, International Peace Day and Earth Day. The choir’s very first political outing was to the ‘Time to Go: Troops out of Iraq’ demonstration in Manchester in 2006. Last year the choir returned to Manchester with a coach load of other people from Ceredigion to protest against austerity at the Tory party conference. On this occasion, Côr Gobaith joined a Campaign Choirs action with members of street choirs from Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, East Lancashire, Leicester, Birmingham and their oldest allies Côr Cochion Caerdydd.

Although 2016 looks to be as busy as ever for Côr Gobaith with their tenth anniversary concert, a Street Choirs Festival in Leicester and crossing the channel to sing with the Revolutionary Choirs of France, Lotte Reimer wouldn’t want people to think choir life was hyperactive and only involved radical politics: ‘We spend a lot of our time singing in our own community, supporting local groups and events. Sometimes we go to sing to people in Hafan y Waun Nursing Home, which everyone enjoys immensely.’

What a performance!

The concert on Saturday included the story of Côr Gobaith as a piece of theatre, wonderfully hammed up by members of the choir. The performance featured songs from the choir’s extensive repertoire.

As well as old favourites that stirred the soul, there were be new songs composed by choir members to reflect current issues of concern such as climate change, homelessness and austerity. Of many stand-out songs during the evening were Susie Ennals’ favourite No More War by Nickomo Clarke and Bob Dylan’s powerful Masters of War arranged by the current Musical Director Nest Howells.

Nest has extended Côr Gobaith’s repertoire of songs sung in Welsh, rewriting the lyrics of a number of well-known ballads and translating protest songs from around the world.

At some points in the evening the audience were encouraged to sing along. With a number of members of Côr Cochion, the Pales Peace choir and other singers filling the seats in the Morlan, very little encouragement was required!

We Will Rise! written for Côr Gobaith by Dr Vole, Zayeet and Paula Boulton, has become an anthem of resistance to the Conservative government’s programme of austerity and cuts across Britain. Almost needless to say, choir and audience alike raised the roof with the chorus: ‘We will rise / We will not accept those politicians’ lies / So come on get out and fight / unite against the right / We will rise!’

The singing was accompanied by vibrant images from many campaigns and protests over the years. A video playing on the Morlan foyer screen included Côr Gobaith singing his version of The Internationale on stage with Billy Bragg in Aberystwyth’s Arts Centre to mark the 25th anniversary of the miner’s strike: So come brothers and sisters / For the struggle carries on / The Internationale / Unites the world in song. The peripatetic Street Choirs Festival has adopted the song as its anthem.

Elin Jones, who at the time of writing was Plaid Cymru’s candidate for re-election as Assembly Member for Ceredigion, said: “I’d like to wish a very happy tenth birthday to Côr Gobaith. The choir has been part of many important campaigns, from saving public services to opposing illegal wars and raising funds for refugees.

“For so many good causes, Côr Gobaith has been willing to lend a voice. Ceredigion can be proud of the choir, who have added a new musical dimension to our area’s long tradition of support for internationalism and peace.”

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Jon Coles

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