HAVE YOU SEEN the woman who sings the streets of London? On Thursday, December 8, Lotte Reimer from Blaenplwyf hopped on the bus to the UK’s capital to busk at Earl’s Court.
That same night, she joined up with a group of people singing outside the tube station to raise money for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). In truth, Lotte’s adventure was about interviewing members of this street choir than busking as an extreme long-distance sport! That said, she told The Herald she was very glad to be able to contribute a little towards the often forgotten cause of people suffering in Palestine, where MAP is working across the West Bank and Gaza and in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Lotte is part of a project to interview members of street choirs from all around the UK. Although they get little or no media attention, street choirs sing regularly in many communities from Edinburgh to Brighton and from Aberystwyth to Whitby. Funded by the Sharing Heritage strand of the National Lottery, Lotte’s project is unusual in that it sets out to record oral histories of street choirs throughout the UK. Typically, Sharing Heritage projects focus on the history of one place-based community, for instance a village, rather than a network spread across places in different nations.
Lotte told The Herald: “It’s difficult to fully define what a street choir is. Obviously, they sing in the street! Community choirs are great, but the street choirs that we’re interested in for this oral history project are definitely political; they are out there all the time singing for campaigns and causes. Many of them have been around for decades. Lots have working class origins, coming out of initiatives like the Workers Education Association or the Clarion movement. Raised Voices, whom I sang with at Earl’s Court in London, sing for peace, justice and the environment, and against militarism, capitalism, racism and sexism. The choir is based in North London and has been in existence since 1986. They have more than 25 members, and we managed to interview five of them this weekend – old-stagers, beginners and some in between. It was very busy!”
Apart from interviewing members of Raised Voices, Lotte somehow found time to interview a former member of Velvet Fist. Now disbanded, Velvet Fist were a well-known feminist women’s choir founded in 1983 as part of an arts project organised by the Communist Party. Finally, Lotte also managed to get to a rehearsal with Strawberry Thieves, an activist choir based in Telegraph Hill, South-East London.
The oral history project which Lotte is co-ordinating is called ‘Singing for Our Lives’ and will, ultimately, record the oral histories of more than 40 members of at least 10 different street choirs. Apart from Raised Voices, Strawberry Thieves and Velvet Fist in London, the project has already interviewed members of Liverpool Socialist Singers and the sharply named Red Leicester. In the coming months, Lotte will visit Sheffield to interview Sheffield Socialist Singers and the LGBTQ choir Out Aloud.
She will also trek up to Edinburgh to interview members of radical singing group Protest in Harmony. Supported by online resources, the main output of the project will be a book introducing ‘stories from the street choirs’ to a much wider public.
Lotte told us: “The aim is to share these amazing personal stories and encourage more people to get into singing with their local political communities. It’s such a great way to support local and international campaigns, to meet people and sing with them. We’re also hoping we can learn something about how street choirs themselves can attract new people, especially younger people and people from a wider range of ethnic groups. Even the London choirs were mainly older people and mostly white faces! We also want to explore ways that choirs can work together more, sharing songs, knowledge and skills, and coming together as combined choirs to sing at actions and national demonstrations. We have an initiative, Campaign Choirs, which is taking a lead on increasing cooperation between choirs. Also, many choirs simply struggle to get enough basses – they just need more men, basically! Most street choirs believe everyone can sing and people don’t need to be able to read music or to be experienced singers to join. No one needs to be scared or shy.”
STREET CHOIRS IN WALES
In 2013, Côr Gobaith, in which Lotte sings, hosted the annual Street Choirs Festival in Aberystwyth, an event which many Herald readers will remember fondly. The Festival in Aberystwyth attracted some 50 choirs and hundreds of people to the town for a glorious, sun-blessed weekend in the middle of July. Beginning in Sheffield in 1983 as the ‘National Street Band Festival’, the breakaway Street Choirs Festival seeks to ‘put the music into protest to make it more creative, joyful and thought-provoking’. The ambition is to help create a world free of oppression, exploitation and violence. With its roots in the north of England, the Street Choirs Festival has blossomed across the UK, being staged every year in a different town or city. In Aberystwyth, the Festival took place in the Arts Centre over a very full weekend that included a ‘mass sing’ with all the choirs gathered on the seafront.
Perhaps Wales’ most famous contemporary street choir is Cardiff’s near legendary Côr Cochion Caerdydd. Since 1983, ‘Cardiff Reds Choir’ have sung, ‘campaigning for peace, freedom and justice’. In the process, they have raised many thousands of pounds to support people in the UK and abroad who are struggling against hardship and oppression. Lotte Reimer told The Herald: “We’re certainly going to interview members of Côr Cochion for the Singing for Our Lives project. They are amazing activists and have actually been to sing in places like Ireland during the Troubles and in Palestine. I remember Ray Davies, one of South Wales’ most colourful and dedicated political characters. In his trademark red beret, Ray was a staunch member of Côr Cochion until he died last year. It’s stories like Ray’s that we don’t want to miss out on recording and sharing.”
IDEAS IN ACTION
Back in Aberystwyth, at lunchtime on Saturday (Dec 10), Lotte’s comrades in Côr Gobaith joined in the singing outside the Christmas Fair, held at Medina restaurant on Market Street. The singing raised £70 for Mind and Blood Bikes.
Happy to be home, Lotte Reimer was also a little sad to have missed out on singing with her own beloved choir: “Still, you can’t do everything!” – although Lotte does seem to try her level best!
To find out more about Singing for Our Lives, visit www.singing4ourlives.net.