The 14th Various Voices was held in Munich and 92 choirs took part, from 23 countries. For the “pinkies” it was a chance to renew old friendships and make new ones, and for some it was their first chance to experience the wider LGBT choral world. As the oldest LGBT choir in Europe, the Pinkies’ performances are always well attended and receive a great reception. However, it does mean we put a certain amount of pressure on ourselves to give an outstanding performance for everyone!
Our repertoire in Munich gave us the opportunity to perform songs from a diverse range of musical styles, from the wondrous “Oh Radiant Dawn” for which we received many, many compliments, to Old Pinkie Favourites “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Proud Mary” with full choreography. For me one of the highlights was to see 3 members of the choir perform solos at their first Various Voices.
It was also exciting to see the range of performances from other choirs: from the sheer polish of the established American choirs, to the enthusiasm and joy of the choirs who were attending the festival for the first time. I can only imagine how the choir members from Ukraine, Poland & Turkey felt being part of such an inspiring and emotional 4 days.
Prior to joining the Pink Singers in September 2012, I had always wondered “Why join an LGBT choir?”. Having attended the last two Various Voices, I see that although the countries we live in may all be at different stages in terms of equality and justice for LGBT+ people, we are all travelling on the same journey. The one thing we all know is that singing as part of a group is something very special, and being supportive of other choirs in whatever way we can is a privilege.
Tenor Hsien talks about his experience at Hand in Hand Asia, the region’s biennial Queer Choral Festival…
A word of advice to the person on the sound desk. Playing the reprise to ‘Born This Way’ is probably not the best way to clear the stage at the end of a wildly successful choral festival in Seoul, South Korea. And it is a terrible idea if the stage is already packed with over 200 LGBT choristers from across Asia. After all, we’re all born superstars! Yes, in what has now become a bit of a tradition, a small band of Pinkies took part in the second incarnation of Asia’s LGBT choral festival Hand In Hand Seoul 2017. The inaugural iteration of this biennial event took place in Taipei, Taiwan in 2015. We had such a blast then it was hard to imagine how a trip to Korea could top that, but Hand In Hand Seoul was all that and more!
If Taipei was all about new friendships, Seoul was about the reunion. In the intervening couple of years quite a few Pinkies have made new lives for themselves away from London, so Hand in Hand was the first time that we had all gathered in the same place. We reminisced, bitched and wondered why we don’t see each other more often. In that we were accompanied by our buddies from the host choirs G_Voice and Unnie Choir, as well as friends from Taiwan, Singapore, China and Japan who we met at the last festival, but this time were we also joined by the members of two new choirs from Hong Kong. Indeed, the increasing popularity of LGBT choral singing across Asia, and participation in this festival, has meant that the Pinkies could not have a set of our very own, but we were pleased to perform as part of the wider Proud Voices Asia from-scratch choir, itself made up of people from 11 countries and meeting in the South Korean capital for the first time. Converging on Seoul felt very much like a massive family gathering.
Hand in Hand Seoul took place over the weekend of 2-4 June 2017. It opened with a traditional welcome dinner – any buffet with mountains of fried chicken and mandoo (dumplings) is a winner! – and performances by a drag queen singing K-pop followed by a drag king performing a traditional Korean dance. To me that juxtaposition of modernity and tradition spoke a lot about some of the tensions of living in this metropolis. This theme continued the next day at a press conference held in central Seoul, followed by a mini-Pride parade down to City Hall. South Korea is actually quite an evangelical country, and the weekend of our festival also saw a large anti-gay conference in another part of town. Our rainbow-flag adorned arrival in Seoul Plaza, the political heart of the city, was met with double rows of policemen cordoning off crucifix-carrying bigots, hate in their eyes, snarling in rage and spewing spittle and insults. Like many of the Pinkies, I’ve never had to deal with such blatant homophobia in my life. It was an eye-opener to see that someone I had never met before could harbour so much un-grounded ill-feeling towards me – it was a sobering moment indeed.
It was a sobering moment too for participants from the many other choirs across Asia. The state of legal equality varies tremendously across this huge geographical area. Our arrival in Seoul was preceded by the announcement that the constitutional court in Taiwan had voted in favour of marriage equality, so there was a celebratory mood, but it was tempered by announcements of increased proscriptions on foreign participation and sponsorship at the Singaporean Pink Dot (Pride) gathering, a country where being gay is still criminalized. It may be argued, however, that regardless of legal status, social equality has a greater impact on the lives of LGBT people there, and it had to be noted that several members of the choir from Beijing – China does not criminalize homosexuality – still felt compelled to wear masks when performing. And yet for all the choirs, hanging out, sharing meals, participation in facilitated events like the film and women’s nights, and just telling each other stories – despite the language barriers – helped to crystalize their sense of purpose, not only in music, but also in social justice in their own countries.
The weekend culminated in a sold-out concert held at the Mapo Arts Centre: all participating choirs took to the stage to sing songs, largely in their own languages, with projected translations in Korean and English. Sitting up in the balcony and watching their succession of performances I was struck by how much the musicality of the choirs had developed since I had last seen them, and there was so much heart in their performances too. On a number of occasions I started to well up – the highlights for me being a deeply moving rendition of ‘Home’ by the Sing Men’s Chorus, Elements Choir’s joyous performance of ‘Sing!’ and Unnie Choir’s tearful version of ‘Into The New World’. In all three cases the occasionally cheesy lyrics took on an additional depth when viewed through a queer lens. Our own performance of ‘Fix You’ had a similar effect on the audience.
Charged up, we moved to the grand finale of the concert, with all the choirs gathering on stage to unite our voices. As we sang the final chord of the festival song “Hand in Hand”, arms held aloft, there was not a dry eye in the house. I can’t blame the audience for refusing to leave after that, and someone had the bright idea of playing ‘Born This Way’ to try to clear the auditorium. It is true that it did not have the desired effect, but there could not have been a better way to cap off the long weekend of celebration than with even more singing and dancing. What a rush! Taipei was the starting point, Seoul has given us a trajectory and I can safely say, “We’re on the right track baby!” Here’s to the Pink Singers at Hand in Hand Asia 2019!
Hsien is also the co-ordinator of Proud Voices Asia, the Asian LGBT choir network, which has oversight of the Hand in Hand Asia festivals.
LEGATO is a organisation which exists to strengthen the communication and cooperation between the gay and lesbian choruses in Europe. Fresh from their annual meeting, which was held in Munich, tenor Hsien reflects on the bonds which have brought so many European LGBT choirs – old and new – together. On the expedition of life it pays to stop now and then, and take stock of the forks and bends which have come before, so you know how you got to where you are, and perhaps what route to take in the future. As I sat for an enforced two hours of nothingness on the plane from Munich to London, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t joined the Pink Singers: would I even be aware of the wider community of LGBT choirs across Europe and the world? After this Legato meeting in Munich (7-9 Oct), I am incredibly thankful for the path my choral life has taken. Legato, a slightly clunky acronym for “LEsbians and GAys singing TOgether”, is the umbrella organisation of Europe’s LGBT choirs, and a group the Pink Singers has been involved with since its inception. Legato helps to oversee “Various Voices” – affectionately abbreviated to “VV” – the four-yearly gathering of European LGBT choirs which the Pinkies have participated in virtually every iteration of, even back when it was originally called the European Lesbian & Gay Festival of Song. In fact, we have hosted this choral jamboree ourselves on a couple of occasions, our first being the fifth festival in the late 80s. Titled “Singing the Blues Away”, a deliberate dig at the Conservative party of the day, it took place at the height of Section 28, Thatcher’s pernicious anti-gay law. When the choirs of Legato saw that we needed their support to draw attention to that horrible piece of legislation, they awarded us the festival in 1989, helping us to put it on and standing with us in defiance against it. Section 28 was eventually consigned to the dustbin of history, but the Pink Singers will never forget the solidarity our European family showed us then. United we stand. The intervening decades have seen the winning of several victories for equality, so while there remains a lot to be done, the struggles we face locally do not seem as insurmountable as they used to. It is only natural that as a choral body, our emphasis has moved from responding to challenges, to enjoying our shared tradition of music making. Anyone who has ever been to a VV will be aware of the simple delights of participating in a weekend of singing with fellow choristers from across Europe.
Although VVs only happen every four years, in between festivals delegates from our choirs meet at the annual Legato general meetings. This year’s was an opportunity to view our backdrop for VV Munich 2018: the magnificent Gasteig. I can think of no better venue to celebrate LGBT choral singing that in this complex of four outstanding theatres, seating an audience nearly 4,000, surrounded by multiple shared spaces. The latter is actually much more important that it sounds because VVs are as much about socialising as they are about performance, and the communal spaces are essential to facilitate that.
If VVs are principally opportunities to renew old friendships and make new ones, however, then the general meetings are concentrated versions thereof, and there were many new friends to be made this time round. In the last few years there has been an explosion of newly-formed LGBT choirs in Southern and Eastern Europe, and at this meeting they were present in force. Joining us in the north and west were representatives from Komos from Bologna, Roma Rainbow Choir from Rome, Checcoro from Milan, Coro Canone Inverso from Padua, the Mallorca Gay Men’s Chorus, Chór Voces Gaudiae from Warsaw, and the majority of the choir from Odessa, Qwerty Queer. In fact, among the many highlights of the BaVarious Voices concert, presented by the immensely talented Munich choirs on the Saturday night, was watching Qwerty Queer’s guest performance on stage. For me, hearing their song “Vertigo” sung in Russian, wrists bound in red ribbons which were symbolically thrown off, was not only a novel musical experience (I’m not sure we have ever heard Slavic songs at our festivals) it was a timely reminder that the support the Pink Singers once received is now needed in new places.
In a Europe, and a UK – which seems fixated on difference and is increasingly ready to put up barriers between us – it is perhaps time to stop and ask ourselves as both a choir and as a community who we are and how we got here, and perhaps then we can decide where and to whom the road runs from here on out. I hope it heads east and south towards our extended family there. This weekend in Munich reassured me of that. United we stand.
On the 30th of October 2015, some of the Pink Singers travelled to Taipei, Taiwan, for Asia’s first ever LGBT choral festival. Here, our chair Simon explains more.
32 years ago when The Pink Singers was started, I wonder if our founders Mark Bunyan and Brian Kennedy would have dared to imagine that in three decades’ time, we’d be singing on stage with a host of new and established Asian LGBT choirs, 6,000 miles away in Taipei?
The Pink Singers go East
Four weeks ago, ten intrepid pinkies crossed the globe to beautiful Taiwan, having been invited by the wonderful G-Major chorus to the inaugural LGBT choir festival in Asia, Hand in Hand. But how did this come about?
So inspired were our Asian visitors by their experience of Various Voices in Ireland (and with a little nudging from our very own Hsien Chew…), they decided to start a festival of their own, and Hand in Hand Asia was born.
Getting the party started with the British Council
Fast forward 15 months, and a gaggle of jet-lagged, starry-eyed pinkies were 26 floors up, singing some songs ourselves and alongside the G-Major chorus, in the British Council’s offices in downtown Taipei, kicking off the pride festivities.
A very warm welcome
A few hours later, we arrived at the Hand in Hand welcome party in a restaurant downtown. On arrival we are greeted by beaming faces of the G-Major, the hosts, as well as G-Voice & Unnie from Korea, Singapore Men’s Chorus, GAPA from California, choirs from Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.
We were all treated to plate after plate of delicious Taiwanese food and tasty local beer. And of course there was lots of getting to know each other. And some rather energetic dancing. Later, we crossed town to a club where we danced the night away – with each choir spontaneously in succession teaching others their dance moves…
Music and dance – an international language, indeed.
Standing together with pride
The following day, through some canny scheduling, all the choirs were able to march in Taipei pride together – which was a real treat.
The rain held off and a humid, electric atmosphere ensued, with tens of thousands marching and more looking on. I think us Pinkies were taken back by the scale of the march, Asia’s largest, and how welcome we were made to feel as some of the only westerners around. After posing for lots of silly photos we were treated to yet more delicious food.
Hand in Hand – the festival
And then to the main event itself – Hand in Hand. Held at the beautiful concert hall in Taipei University of the Arts, it was very humbling to have the chance to see so many varied and talented choirs perform. First up was Men’s Voice Kansai from Japan, whose outfits revealed more than a little leg, who opened the afternoon concert with a wonderfully rich-sounding set of Japanese folk songs.
In quick succession this was followed by three more choirs from China, performing separately and combined, whose delicate sounds lifted the whole audience. I particularly enjoyed the soloist’s performance of ‘Can you feel the love tonight’.
Other stand-out performances came from Korean choir G-Voice – whose hip gyrations made most of the audience more than a little hot under the collar. Their set featured a lot of hilarious wordplay including ‘Gays are a girl’s best friend”.
And I can’t forget the sultry Unnie who made us all want their ‘Rainbow Feminist’ t-shirts by the time they finished their set which featured on-stage kissing and a wonderful arrangement of ‘Royals’ by Lorde.
We Pinkies took to the stage to perform a couple of our favourite songs, as did one of our subgroups the Barberfellas, before being joined by a few friends from Seattle, Paris, Vancouver and Dublin to form the Proud Voices scratch choir.
Together we sang a variety of songs including a local song, ‘Yi ren yi ban’, in Taiwanese dialect, hokkien. We did all this under the careful eye of our conductor, Frances Bowen, who did a marvellous job of getting us performance-ready in about three short rehearsals – one of which featured a pint-size keyboard for accompaniment!
And then to the main performance – G-Major chorus’ annual concert, and what a treat it was. The choir performed flawlessly and seamlessly switched genres effortlessly – led by the skilled Weylin Gabriel.
Their performance of ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ from Bizet’s Carmen was a real stand-out – with everyone on stage engaged to the full. But the performance of Labi Sire’s ‘Something inside so strong’ was the number that actually brought me to tears – such a solid sound, such passion and belief in the lyrics briefly overwhelmed me. It was stunning.
G-Major: if I could come to every concert of yours, I absolutely would.
And suddenly – it was all over! So many new friends, so many goodbyes. But pinkies being pinkies, we needed a nightcap, so we decamped to the trusty Goldfish bar in Zhongzheng – where we did a quick Skype call to our pinkie friends rehearsing back in London. Many other choir members joined us and celebrated into the small hours.
And what a way to visit Taiwan for the first time. Such a beautiful country with rich history and culture – with such brilliant local hosts we had the best time hiking, eating, adventuring across the country. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Watch the video
You can see Hsien’s video montage of the festival for Proud Voices below.
And what a way to round off a fabulous 2015 for the Pink Singers – having attended not one, but two brand new LGBT choral festivals in Spain and Taiwan. I look forward to more!
Following a wonderful weekend in Brighton at the Hand in Hand Festival, tenor Philip reflects on the song that gave the festival its name, and looks forward to Pride in London on the 27th June, with its theme of Pride Heroes. As of April I have been with the Pink Singers for 28 years, which is about 70 in gay years. In that time I have sung many different pieces, from the classical to the camp, from the profound to the political, often in the same song! Some continue to have a very special meaning for me. This is the story of one of them, Hand in Hand; a song which has become almost an anthem for the Pink Singers. Hand In Hand was written by American composers Dawn Walker & Tricia Rodgers in 1987. I first heard it when the Pink Singers sang in Denver, Colorado in 1992 at the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival. Around 60 choruses from the US and Canada attended with the Pinkies representing Europe (alongside Schola Cantorosa from Hamburg). Those were difficult days both at home and in America with anti-gay legislation and the impact of AIDS hitting us hard. In this context the words of the song struck a chord with us and we brought it back to London. It soon became a favourite with our audiences and the title of our first CD. The live version on that recording still brings a lump to my throat. Hand in hand We’ll be the strongest we can be If we learn to stand by those in need With shoulder pressed to shoulder We will build a mighty wall And nothing in the world Can make us fall, If we stand, hand in hand. A particularly poignant performance took place at the memorial service in St Anne’s Churchyard, Soho, for the people who were killed and injured in a nail-bomb attack in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho on 30 April 1999. The bar in Old Compton Street, at the heart of London’s LGBT+ community, was packed with drinkers at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Two people were killed and over 30 injured. The Soho community gathered together a week later and the choir led the singing with Hand in Hand. In 2004 Pride London was founded. And over 30,000 people were tempted to central London for a parade and rally in Trafalgar Square. Pride gives the LGBT+ community the chance each year to celebrate, demonstrate and show visibility and support to people still coming out. By 2004 some felt the event had lost focus with overblown ticketed pop festivals undermining the purpose of Pride and alienating many groups in the community. The first London March was in August 1971 organised by the Gay Liberation Front and we ended up then in Trafalgar Square where I took part in a piece of street theatre called “Choosing the Chicken”(!) about the age of consent. Pride 2004 was an attempt to return to grass roots and as such the Pink Singers were asked to open the afternoon’s events in the Square by singing “Hand in Hand”, the perfect song for the occasion. We sang it again in 2005, this time closing the rally with the words on the big screen for everyone in the square to sing along. Seeing the crowds in the Square from the stage under Nelson’s Column is very thrilling, a forest of raised joined hands in a real display of the song’s message. In July 2013 we invited LGBT+ choirs from around the UK and Ireland to help us celebrate our thirtieth anniversary with a festival of song which we called Hand in Hand. We were joined by 17 LGBT+ choirs and individual members of other choirs at the Troxy in East London for a memorable evening of choral togetherness. Never did the words of the song seem more relevant. We are delighted that the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus and Rainbow Chorus have carried on the festival and successfully hosted a wonderful weekend – see Ben’s reflections below for more! #HandinHand