Good grief…

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The last photo of Simon and me, at Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg in August 2012

October has been a pretty frantic month – my three choirs have all been learning songs from Shine Like A Rainbow, and last weekend saw me heading off to Whitby to do a special workshop at Musicport world music festival. The next couple of weeks will see workshops for Sosa-Xa! in Sheffield and Harmony Choir in Leeds. Somewhere along the way I decided that I need not rush to get the album online and fully “out there,”as there will be plenty of time for a launch in the UK when Sunduza come over, so I have been selling CDs in my choir sessions and at the workshops, which has proved highly successful.

At the Musicport workshop I was joined by three members of Siyaya, good friends from the artistic community in Bulawayo, who are just coming to the end of their tour of the UK. They agreed to help me out with the workshop on their way to a gig in Newcastle, but at the last minute one of the Musicport headliners pulled out and Jim McLaughlin, the festival organiser, invited Siyaya to take their place. I was really pleased that they got a paid gig out of doing me a favour.

So Ishmael, Mkhux (who also sings with Sunduza and is on the album) and Makula brought their tremendous energy to the Royal Hotel Ballroom, where a great crowd gathered for the workshop. We learned Rainbow/Zulu Buya and Somewhere You’re Dancing, two songs which have also proved popular with Retford Community Singers and Quirky Choir. Floating out of the workshop on a real high, we decided that I should join Siyaya on stage that evening to perform Somewhere You’re Dancing, and invite anyone who was at the workshop to come down to the front to sing with us. This we did to a fantastic reception – I hadn’t expected to sell any of my CDs that evening, but people were asking for them and two women rushed up to me saying, “We want that song for our funerals!”

I originally wrote it to sing solo at the memorial concert for Simon and his nephew Mandla in Sheffield in April 2013. When I went to Zimbabwe last December to put the album together, Charlie and the Sunduza guys made it their own, adding harmonies, references to one of Simon’s songs, percussion and a real party atmosphere. The chorus goes:

I don’t want you to rest in peace
That would never be your kind of heaven
I feel better if I believe
That somewhere you’re dancing

The words have provoked strong reactions in people – mostly positive, although I appreciate its sentiments are not for everyone. But what if we didn’t say “rest in peace” as a cliched reaction to a passing? What if, having acknowledged the pain and loss of the person left behind, we said something like, “I bet s/he’s having a great time over there?” Would it be disrespectful? I fully empathise with those whose loved ones have had a long, drawn-out and painful passing – there the time-honoured words may seem more appropriate – but when the death has been as unexpected and untimely as Simon’s, and when the person in life was so full of activity, positivity and light, they do not sit comfortably with me.

People have commented, over the past few weeks, on my “strength,” and asked how I could do this project, sing these songs, at such a difficult time. Firstly, I would say that no one who could see me at my lowest, crying at home and feeling unable to complete the simplest of tasks, would define me as a strong person. Secondly and more importantly however I would say that I draw whatever strength I do have from doing precisely what people find so remarkable – singing is what I do, as is encouraging others to do so. It is what Simon did brilliantly, and what draws me closer to him whenever I open my mouth. There is no definitive guidebook to grieving, in this death-denying culture of ours. I have chosen a very public way to express my shock and sorrow. Some people have generously told me that it helps them process their own grief, which is wonderful. To others, while I hope I am not causing offence, I hope at least it gives pause to consider there may be other ways to cope with the ultimate certainty in life.

Sharing the Music, Spreading the Word

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Musicport Festival workshop flyer

Musicport Festival workshop flyer

When my friend Sophy and I were working on the bid for Arts Council England funding for my project the funders were keen to know how audiences in this country would benefit. This was not the most straightforward question to answer – there are perhaps two of the thirteen songs on the album that I can perform on my own, and Sunduza are not able to come over just yet – although we are hoping that they will some time in the not too distant future. But the material does adapt well to workshop settings and as I have mentioned before in my blogs a great many children have taken part in workshops based on some of the most accessible songs. Over this year I have also introduced some of the songs to my choirs – The Quirky Choir, Sheffield Socialist Choir and most recently Retford Community Singers – and they have really made the songs their own.

Simon was himself an inspirational workshop facilitator and the first time I met him, in 1999, I was deeply impressed that he could engage with so many different ages and abilities. He and Sunduza did a week’s residency at The Point, where I work with darts, Doncaster Community Arts, and I remember watching him work with adults with learning disabilities, a young people’s dance group, a group of older people wanting to learn drumming, children and the Quirky Choir, and being so impressed with his easy manner and flexible working style.

With his manager Philip Weiss Simon set up a choir in Sheffield called SOSA-XA! – Sounds Of Southern Africa – passing on the leadership to his nephew Mandla Sibanda who worked with the choir for many years before his tragic death just months before Simon’s. I was privileged to work with this choir in a memorial concert for Simon and Mandla in March 2013 and will be returning to share the Shine Like A Rainbow songs with them in November with their current leader Richard Mahachi.

And next week I am excited to announce I will be travelling up to Whitby to do a workshop/presentation as part of the Musicport Festival. I’m lucky to have the assistance of four wonderful singers from Bulawayo group Siyaya who are just coming to the end of their tour here, including Mkhuxunque Sodoyi who features on the album as a member of Sunduza, and Ishmael Muvingi, a good friend of Simon’s.

So if you’re doing to be at the festival, please come along to the Royal Hotel Ballroom at noon on Sunday October 19th and sing with us!

Long time no see

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Shine Like A Rainbow CD

Shine Like A Rainbow CD

So the album arrived, way back in May after my last post. I wasn’t prepared for my reaction – of course I was pleased and proud of what is, I am assured, a beautiful piece of work, but the expected elation didn’t happen – rather the reverse, actually. I found myself plunged into a pit of inertia and indecisiveness over the best way to proceed with it, I became confused by conflicting advice, and apart from giving away a few copies to friends and family and a couple of boxes to Philip, Sunduza’s manager, it’s pretty much sat around in my dining room for four months. With no prospect of Sunduza coming here any time soon, I couldn’t see how I was going to promote it and I guess I experienced another phase of the grieving process.

Well, no more, this has to stop and I need to take it forward. I owe it to Simon’s memory, to Charlie, the other musicians who put so much energy into it, and ultimately myself.

So here I am again, taking a vow of seriousness and re-committing to the blog, the promotion of the music and to the project.

I haven’t exactly done nothing however. Over the summer two of my choirs created and performed their own versions of a song from the album – worth its own blog post so I won’t say any more here. I continued to deliver children’s workshops based on some of the songs –

workshop

All set up for a workshop with young people with learning disabilities at The Point in Doncaster

and I will continue this work into the autumn. Sheffield Socialist Choir are now learning Matata, intending once again to add our own words about a current “matata” (problem) – most likely on an environmental theme. Quirky Choir and Retford Community Singers will also learn some of the songs, and I am offering workshops to other choirs in the region. And I am very excited to be doing a workshop at this year’s Musicport Festival in Whitby on 19th October – even more so since some of my old friends in the performance group Siyaya, including Mkhux who also sings with Sunduza and is on the album, have offered to come and help me.

Philip went to Zimbabwe in August and took some CDs for Charlie and the others. They are now busy planning an album launch in Bulawayo featuring as many as possible of the musicians and also creating an exhibition of photos of Simon and of ourselves during the creation of the music last year.

So one of the few things I did manage to do was to book a flight for December – I am flying out again on the 5th for a couple of weeks – no doubt to another packed schedule of rehearsals and gigs, and for the second anniversary of Simon’s passing including the unveiling of a gravestone.

Early reactions from the few people who have heard the album so far have been extremely positive – I was worried that it would only appeal to those who knew Simon, but it seems to be touching others too and resonates particularly with those who have lost a loved one. I have had a kind offer from one such person to make a promotional video for the album, free of charge, which is lovely.

Still have a packed to do list including getting it on iTunes etc. but I finally feel as if things are moving again. I promise not to fall silent again!