Women refugees singing in a choir in Leeds

By Corinne Macdonald

 

Zidele, Zidele, Zidele a Makembo,
Zidele, Zidele, Zidele a Makembo,
Zidele, Zidele, Zidele a Makembo
Zidele a Makemboooooooo, Zidele a Makemboooooooo, Zidele a Makembooooo, Zidele a Makembo,
Zidele, Zidele, Zidele a Makembo.

So begins my visit to the West Yorkshire Playhouse on a grey Friday in April. I’ve come to interview the ladies of Asmarina Voices, a women’s choir made up of refugees and asylum seekers, and have ended up singing the alto part of an African song.

It’s been eight years since I last sang in a choir in secondary school and it’s not without slight trepidation that I grasp the song sheet. There are the familiar vocal warm ups, each gradually moving up an octave, and a sense of camaraderie between the choristers which instantly puts me at ease.

The lyrics to the opening number, a traditional African song, translate to “take a chance” and “give yourself up, bones and all”, the atmosphere in the room is so lively and warm that it’s nearly impossible not to comply and have a good go at it.

Now in its third year, the choir began in 2013 as part of the Welcoming the World programme which intended to connect the refugee population of Leeds with the Playhouse’s audience to answer questions and dispel myths.

This was all to accompany the world premiere of Refugee Boy, a tale of a young asylum seeker who comes to England to escape the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, adapted for the stage by Lemm Sissay from Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel.

The production prompted the Playhouse to meet with the Refugee Council as well as various grassroots organisations.

Enjoyment

Ruth Hannant, creative engagement manager for the Playhouse, explained to me that: “The key thing that came out of it is that within Leeds there are, although rapidly declining due to funding, places for people to get food, to get accommodation, to get their kind of basic needs met. But what there is a real lack of is enjoyable experiences, you know, for people to actually live life rather than just exist and have fun basically”.

It’s a curious thing, fun. It seems luxurious, entirely unnecessary. Can one die due to a lack of frivolity? The easy answer is no. It’s perfectly possible to wake up every morning, have breakfast, go to work or look after your children, or both, eat your tea and go to bed. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

But who just wants an existence? Life is what we’re all striving for, and life requires a little enjoyment, some levity. There are fridge magnets, tattoos and Instagram posts the world over adorned with quotes that attest to this; ‘live, laugh, love’, ‘life is to be enjoyed and not just endured’, ‘you only live once’ etc.

So no, unlike starvation, hypothermia, or communicable diseases, we’re not about to see lack of fun listed as cause of death on a post-mortem, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be counted as a necessity.

One lady, originally from Botswana, explained that coming to sing once a week is “a way out of boredom, to get yourself engaged, because if not, you will spend the day doing nothing, so it’s an opportunity to take the depression away.”

Therapy

This seems to be the general consensus in the group. “Singing is very good, it relaxes our mind and you forget about everything, then we’re really enjoying singing,” another member of the group tells me.

Sometimes when you sing aloud, you are singing out your problems, when you speak a song loudly, you are speaking your depression out.

Music as therapy is an idea which goes back through the ages – the ancient Greeks chose Apollo as their God for both music and medicine, Plato and Aristotle both waxed lyrical about the effect of music on human emotions.

Music therapy focuses on using music as a coping strategy when dealing with stress and programs using it have demonstrated a repeated reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms.

Every June, alongside 100,000 others, I make the yearly pilgrimage to Glastonbury, even when I don’t rate the line up because it’s a rollicking good time and impossible not to smile when singing in a crowd of thousands.

Engagement

There aren’t thousands of people in the choir room on the day of my visit, around 20 in fact, but the feeling is much the same. The group meet every Friday at First Floors, the creative engagement branch of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Their name is the Eritrean word for unite, apt for a group that brings together women from across the city who have come from all over the world.

Though they are individually dealing with the stresses of asylum applications, bringing up children, learning a new language and moving to a new country, this is the time to let go, sing and socialise.

The Playhouse has funding for bus tickets for the ladies, to provide tea, cakes and sandwiches and a musician, Sophie Jennings, who describes the group as “one of the highlights of [her] week”.

A woman from Nigeria explains to me that: “Sometimes when you sing aloud, you are singing out your problems, when you speak a song loudly, you are speaking your depression out”.

In a life consumed by case meetings, form filling and waiting for verdicts, I can only imagine how valuable it must be to have a place to go where you don’t have to talk about your case, past and the trauma you have fled.

Sanctuary

The choir room feels like a sacred space where the ladies gather to laugh and exorcise their troubles.

Their ethos was “to learn about refugees and asylum seekers…so you know the difference between the media portrayal and you actually have some knowledge of the truth.

Due to its work with the refugee and asylum seeker community in Leeds, the Playhouse has been designated a Theatre of Sanctuary, the only theatre with this accolade in the world.

Awarded by City of Sanctuary, whose goal is to create a network of towns and cities which are proud to be places of safety.

The Playhouse had to demonstrate its commitment to their local refugee and asylum seeker community by welcoming them and embedding them into the organisation.

Asmarina Voices is only one project, they also run a young people’s befriending scheme to enable newly arrived young people to make friends and at certain performances of Refugee Boy and The Kite Runner, organised pre and post show discussions with the audience to create a conversation around some of the issues raised in the performances.

Shreena Gobey, who organises the group every week, explained their ethos was “to learn about refugees and asylum seekers…so you know the difference between the media portrayal and you actually have some knowledge of the truth…so that you can challenge that negative stereotyping”.

Rhythm

The session closes with us working on a song a group of the ladies had written in a previous week. We shuffle into small groups to learn the high, middle and low parts.

I’m co-opted into the low group, who are short on numbers, and forget each part as soon as I’ve learnt the next one. I’m probably slowing down progress but no one seems to mind, we’re all still enjoying ourselves.

We’ve abandoned the chairs for this last number and feet are tapping, fingers clicking and hips swaying throughout the room. I try and move my rigid British hips in some semblance of rhythm and learn I can’t actually sing and move at the same time.

Looking round the room at the group learning their own song, smiles on their faces I can’t help but feel part of something really special.

A room filled with women from Eritrea, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, The Philippines and Jamaica who have welcomed me into their group as I would encourage you to welcome refugees and asylum seekers into your communities.

I walk away from the Playhouse with a spring in my step and a grin plastered across my face humming Zidele a Makembo throughout the afternoon.

I can’t remember ever leaving a school choir practice so giddy, but then again – they were never really that fun.

 


Featured image by West Yorkshire Playhouse