If you can talk, you can sing

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I was born into a family of singing women — my grandmother, my mother, my two sisters. But the man in the mix, my dad, couldn’t sing a lick. I seem to have taken after him. I tried out for choir a couple of times, but it was painful; I couldn’t carry a tune alone, I couldn’t hit the note I was looking at.

I became a twirler.

However, rejection did not keep me from singing. When I was still too young to understand that I would never make choir, Mom played the piano and my sisters and I sang for our grandparents. Although we ranged through just about everything in the American songbook, I preferred the torch songs of the era, the early ’50s. At the age of seven, I belted out “My Heart Cries for You” as if I was Dinah Shore herself. I did sing in church . . . not in the choir, just in the pew; and as I grew up, I sang to all rock ‘n roll songs. Alone in my singing, or even with a 45 record, I wandered around the scale like a deaf person.

I liked to sing as much as others preferred that I didn’t, so for most of my life it’s been a private pursuit; as in, no one else can be in the house or the car when I rhapsodize. But I just found a place, an actual choir, that wants me.

It’s called Ubuntu. It is a musical groundswell that started in Canada and has spread across the continent north of us, and finally, to many people’s great joy, it slipped southward and around the world. The word itself, native South African, originally meant the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity

“…if you can talk, you can sing.” This proverb that I was never in my life made aware of, is the backbone of Ubuntu — acapella choirs for the fun of it.

Although I have been unable to discover if Canadian Shivon Robinsong, founder and namer of this all-inclusive kind of choir, made up her last name or came into her vocation because of it, I am happy in her belief that anyone can sing. She rounded up the first choir in 1996 in Victoria, B.C. on this premise. “It’s only in very recent years that we’ve had this kind of epidemic of people not thinking they’re good enough,” said Robinsong in regard to group singing. “Being a consumerist culture has trained us that if you love music, go out and buy it.” She thinks we’re better off going out and singing it ourselves.

Robinsong started her first group of a few interested folks singing simple chants, rounds, fun and funny songs, quick and easy and beautiful songs, from all over the world. That first Vancouver choir is now 300 strong and there are now several other Ubuntu choirs that have formed in that city. All kinds of people, those who can sing and a good portion of those who always thought they had no voice and couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, join Ubuntu choirs. They thrive in every province of Canada and across America — in Los Angeles, Denver, Santa Fe, Portland, Minnetonka, Traverse City, Charlottesville, Annapolis. They sing medieval chant, folk songs of all nations, American bluegrass, Brazilian samba, Irish ballads, Portuguese fado, West African highlife, Cuban salsa, Indian kirtans. The choirs’ names themselves even tremble with song: Accidental Harmony, Gettin’ Higher Choir, Acapellaboratory, Peace Choir, Free Range Choir (as in “free your voice and express your full range”).

Ubuntu choirs have a point beyond just singing, and this point arises straight out of each gathering — an Ubuntu choir creates a world in which everyone singing learns to listen deeply to whoever is around them, and trusts. From this, the community is formed.

I discovered the truth of it when I went to what I thought was a concert and wound up in an Ubuntu choir led by an experienced choir director who was happy to have non-singers interspersed among the beautiful voices. I was a perfect fit, welcomed as one who in public sings off-key timidly. The director told me that being around stronger voices, I and my voice would just naturally grow in strength and beauty. I highly doubted this, but it was the case. I sang well. I was comfortable. I was having fun. About five minutes into it, I was an on-key tenor singing a 12th-century chant written by Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well / And all shall be well |/And all manner of things shall be well.”

This one simple tune has kept me happy for days.

The Ubuntu movement believes that the joy of group singing is a universal birthright that will improve the world. The new brain science backs this up. Swedish researchers have discovered that singing in unison calms people. It slows the heart rate. The singers’ heart beats start synchronizing, beating as one so to speak, which creates a fellow feeling throughout the group, a kind of cohesive well-being. A large part of this is just from hanging out with others, from belonging, from feeling anything but isolated.

There are so many things in life that do not create any sense of well-being at all. To discover something very fun that does? Makes for a new day. The science on group singing sounds like shades of “We’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” The Ubuntus actually say this — “Ubuntu choirs seek to create a world in which we listen deeply to those around us, celebrate diversity, trust in our voices and bring them forward on behalf of harmony, justice and peace.” Sounds high-falutin’, but it’s not; it’s true. It happened to me with one visit.

The Ubuntu mantra includes these three ideas: Singing is an essential human birthright and a powerful source of energy and connection. Singing together is a potent tool for building community. Singing in harmony teaches us to celebrate diversity and to practice listening.

Ubuntu choirs are inclusive in that they want people from all walks of life, cultures, faiths and abilities. You don’t have to audition. The choirs are based on singing to build community rather than for performance, although their history shows that they often wind up singing to raise money for local and global needs.

I have learned through Ubuntu that the reason I’ve sung all my life despite my lack of tuning in correctly is that it is my natural state, an atavistic practice ingrained into the fabric of all of us, all humanity, all over the world.

Sing it!

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