Various Voices 2018

Gary from the basses talks about our trip to the Various Voices choir festival in Munich. We’ve been going since 1985!

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!

The collosal Philharmonie at the Munich Gasteig – no pressure!

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.

Various Voices festival Munich, Gasteig – 12 May 2018

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.

The QWERTY QUEER choir from the Ukraine.

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.

See you next time!
Timeline datestamp: 11-12 May 2018

Seoul Survivor

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!

Hand in Hand Seoul 2017

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.

Socializing over BBQ, beer and soju

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.

Impromptou choreo rehearsal

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.

Celebrating Marriage Equality in Taiwan

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!

Proud Voices choir

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.

Timeline datestamp: 04 July 2017

Mumbai Musings: part 4

Our fourth and final India blog comes to you from another Pinkie. Tenor Hsien put in MANY hours to make this trip happen, from organising seminars, liaising with the Rainbow Voices Mumbai team, and branding the whole project to handling the vast majority of the logistics! (We think he must have made a clone of himself to have achieved all that he did…). Anyway, this is what the experience meant to him. 

We live in a time where forces are trying to separate us, where difference is something to be feared rather than celebrated, and where populism has thrown up barriers between communities both within and without national borders. When, two years ago, the Pink Singers first started planning our trip to India to sing with Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir, we had no idea that the world would change as much as it has, nor could we have predicted that the need for our collaboration would have been as great.

It is a truism that music brings people together, and an international choir collaboration is nothing new, but when two choirs identify as LGBT and perform jointly in a country where being gay is still criminalized, the added dimension creates the opportunity to not only learn about how culture, society and history affect each other’s LGBT experience, but also explore common ground.

The first formal event of the week sought to both analyse this and serve as an ice-breaker, and was a seminar at the American Consulate General in Mumbai. The topic of discussion, “LGBT representation in the arts”, was timely given the partial coming out in the recently published memoirs of Karan Johar, a famous Bollywood actor. While much of the discussion naturally focused on community arts and, in particular, choirs, we had the privilege to be joined by the director Onir whose ground-breaking film “My Brother Nikhil” continues to have ramifications on the film industry today. He gave us a candid insight into the tension between his own coming out and the challenge of carving a career without labels for himself.

 Panelists included representatives from the Pink Singers and Rainbow Voices, as well as director, Onir (seated fourth from left).

It served as a springboard for members of both choirs to discuss their own experiences. Indeed, what the two choirs shared with each other – our stories of coming out, of family pressures, of first dates, of singing in choirs – showed that our similarities were far greater than any differences between us. Judging by how the conversations flowed into dinner and a late night karaoke, there is a strength in the knowledge that we are not alone, and that out there, there is a community of singers just like us.

The joint ”We Shall Overcome” concert at the prestigious National Centre for the Performing Arts Mumbai was an emotional rollercoaster for many of us precisely because of this: in the context of these personal testimonies, every song sung by both choirs took on an added significance. When, as our finale, we sang an a capella version of “We Shall Overcome” together in English and Hindi, it was a moving show of defiance and solidarity from which I could not hold back my tears.

My personal highlight of the whole weekend, however, was marching side-by-side with Rainbow Voices Mumbai at Queer Azaadi Mumbai (Mumbai Pride). It was a raucous, colourful march full of energetic dancing, the sound of drums and singing, but at its core it was also a protest with hand drawn placards and strident chants of Azaadi! (Freedom!), reminding curious onlookers that this was very much a demonstration.

I have now returned to the UK with fantastic memories, newfound friends, a much deeper understanding of the challenges the LGBT community faces there, and a strong desire to help Rainbow Voices Mumbai in their twin fights against Section 377 and for social acceptance. It has also made me appreciate that I cannot take any of my liberties for granted: were it not for the quirk of fate which led me to be born in the right place at the right time, my life could have been very different. It makes all the divisions we seen being artificially created around us, all the more irrelevant. I can’t wait to see Rainbow Voices Mumbai again when they come to London this summer for Pride in London.

We’re still fundraising to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai to the UK, to see what it’s like to march in a Pride parade where everyone can be themselves and live without fear. We’ve raised over £5,000 already, thanks to our supporters’ generosity. We need to double this to bring every member of RVM here in July. Can you help us reach our goal? Donate via our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017 or email chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

Mumbai Musings: part 3

In the third of our blog posts about the Pink Singers’ India project, Rainbow Voices Mumbai member Aniruddha tells us about meeting the Pink Singers for the first time, making friends and feeling uplifted in the battle against Section 377, the law which criminalises homosexuality in India.

At the Kashish Film Festival 2016, during the closing ceremony Rainbow Voices Mumbai were on stage, performing with lots of energy and beautiful songs. After the performance Vinodh Philip announced that the Pink Singers from London would be coming to India to perform with the choir. Sitting in the audience I was jealously thinking, ‘how lucky they are to be able to perform with the Pink Singers’. Little did I know what destiny had planned for me…

Two months down the line there I was sitting at the RVM’s audition session and by the end of the day I was a part of the choir! Every Sunday, we rehearse and our teacher David Williamson makes sure each one of us hits the right note, at the right time, and in the right pitch. Every night, I’ve been watching YouTube videos of the Pink Singers and thinking “they are really good!”

So 2016 ended and with the beginning of 2017, the month of our concert arrived, called “We Shall Overcome”, referring to the battle every queer person in India faces to be accepted. Rehearsals were in full swing with all the other arrangements going on around it; organising the venue, licences, costumes, the programme and lots of fundraising!

We finally got to meet the Pinkies on the 25 January 2017. It was 5.30pm at the American Consulate library when the door opened and the Pink Singers entered. Our eyes saw the colours of a rainbow, every handshake felt like a promise to support us in this battle for freedom, every hello and hi was saying ‘I am here for you’.

As I looked around the room the Pink Singers and RVM sat with each other. No barriers, no walls, no difference of colour, caste, religion and language. Suddenly from you and me, we became us.

RVM planned a Karaoke night for the Pinkies and what a night it turned out to be! Every trace of tiredness, jet-lag and fatigue was gone. We sang, we danced, we ate, we drank and raised our glasses to toast the beginning of a new friendship and collaboration.

 Getting to know you.. RVM were fantastic hosts and became firm friends during the trip. 🙂

Next day, rehearsals began and we learned the choreography for our joint song, “Born This Way”, by Lady Gaga. We performed in front of the Pinkies and they performed for us. We were learning so much from them. Later we went for dinner together to eat delicious Indian food. We spoke to each other about our lives, loves, careers, hobbies and of course, lots of gossip! It made us feel that although we are from different countries we’re all so similar. We have so many of the same dreams, hopes and aspirations.

Then D-day arrived at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai. The Pinkies were a stunning vision in all black and each wearing a pink rose. RVM wore black pants, Nehru jackets and rainbow coloured shirts.

RVM took to the stage with a huge round of applause. Standing there we saw an auditorium full of people known and unknown to us. Each song was followed by thunderous applause and it just made us more confident and happy as the night went on. We sang songs of hope, happiness, traditional songs, and a fun Bollywood number.

Next the Pinkies took to the stage and took everyone’s attention. Every song and every move they made was flawless and it was sheer magic to watch them perform. I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack. Truly inspiring. 🙂

Then for the grand finale, the Pinkies and RVM collaborated to sing “Jai Ho”, “Born This Way” and “We Shall Overcome”. It was no longer two choirs, it was one community, singing in one voice and spreading the message “all for one and one for all”.  We felt united in that moment.

The concert ended with seemingly non-stop applause and cheering echoed around the theatre. We met the audience, took so many photographs and felt just like celebrities! We felt accepted as we declared to the world, “I was born this way and I am not ashamed”.

The following day was our Pride March – “Queer Azaadi” – which means Queer Freedom. The choirs marched together with heads held high and singing as we went. Pride in India is a protest against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. This is not just a legal battle; we are up against a very strong and deep rooted social, religious, political and personal prejudice. It’s a tough battle and we are ready. This magical, musical pink touch of the Pink Singers gave us a new boost, a new momentum and new courage to fight.

So now that we are back in our daily lives, we at least know we have a new group of friends in a far off land silently praying, wishing and cheering for us. We shall overcome.

We love you all Pinkies and see you soon! 

Aniruddha xoxo

We’re still fundraising to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai to the UK, to see what it’s like to march in a Pride parade where everyone can be themselves and live without fear. We’ve raised over £5,000 already, thanks to our supporters’ generosity. We need to double this to bring every member of RVM here in July. Can you help us reach our goal? Donate via our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017 or email chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

Mumbai Musings: part 2

‘There’s a first time for…. more than one thing.’

Joining the Pinkies on our recent trip to India was a whirlwind experience of ‘firsts’ for newbie Claire – from taking to the mic in front of a large crowd to marching en masse in her first ever Pride. Here she shares these adventures and more… 

At the end of January, a group of over 40 members of the Pink Singers arrived in Mumbai to show support to Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir. For me this was an adventure of a lifetime: I’m in my late 40s (ok, I’m 50 this year) and this trip was the first time I had left the UK in over 18 years. Also, as someone who – due to a whole series of circumstances – was late coming out, Mumbai Pride would be my very first Pride March!

I cannot say what I was expecting, other than possible heat stroke and the need for Imodium! I found myself in a busy city of contrasts: beautiful buildings alongside slum areas; colours and flavours seemed brighter and more intense; people were curious, but friendly (eye contact in a city…). After living so long in London, this was so refreshing. I learned that to cross a road, you had to treat it as a champion’s quest, and that bartering was not only expected, but fun to do. 

Taking part in the Queer Azaadi Mumbai March was one of the best experiences I have ever had. It was a privilege to be able to walk alongside people from the Indian LGBTQ+ community who cannot openly live the lives they wish to, and to show solidarity and support in their fight to overturn Section 377. I am now looking forward to taking part in London Pride, where I hope some of our friends from Rainbow Voices Mumbai will be marching alongside us. 

I am an introvert. I find it hard to show it when I’m happy; smiles I feel on the inside rarely show on my face. I also find crowds difficult, I’m not good at small talk, although I’m a great listener. I have social anxiety and being the centre of attention can be a real problem.

So… when Simon, our Chair, said, ‘Claire, I’d like to ask you something but it’s ok to say no’, and then went on to ask whether I would speak at the concert in between songs, my brain screamed, ‘NO!’, but I heard myself calmly agree. And so, the next evening, I found myself speaking in front of a crowd for the first time. 🙂

Claire making her moving speech during the ‘We Shall Overcome’ concert

Singing with and listening to the members of Rainbow Voices Mumbai was truly uplifting. Being able to spend time singing, listening, talking, eating and drinking together, as well as sharing stories and experiences made me realise that although we live many miles apart, we can still find common ground.  

Being part of a choir gives us a shared understanding. When we sing together, that’s when the magic happens. Not only is singing therapeutic, joining together as a group provides a sense of belonging. This is something I shared during the concert: the knowledge that members of the choir have become friends and more than that, my family and support group. A wise man once said, “We are living in divisive times, where forces seek to drive wedges between us. Long may music and these experiences we share bring us together.” (Tenor, Hsien Chew, Facebook posting, 2017). 

Next up, the Pinkies plan to bring Rainbow Voices to London! We can’t wait to perform with them again and plan for them to join us at our next concert at Cadogan Hall on 15th July. But we need funds to help make this dream a reality! If you can help bring this wonderful choir to London (you can even come to watch them perform!) you can donate through our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017  or contact chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.