Music is a language of its own; it has the power to break down social, cultural and psychological barriers and to unite people from all walks of life. Music can be healing, especially for those who have suffered trauma due to violence, torture, conflict and displacement. Music brings comfort to our souls.
The Singing Our Lives project brings together people from local UK communities with people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds to compose and perform new music, and this year, to mark Refugee Week 2022, the project will culminate with a special event open to the public, “Under the Same Sun”, taking place on Sunday 26th June, 6 PM, at the Union Chapel in London (19b Compton Terrace, N1 2UN).
“Under the Same Sun” is a song that has been collectively written and composed by the participants in the project. The premiere of "Under the Same Sun" will be a featuring hundreds of performers onstage to celebrate through music and song this year’s Refugee Week theme of healing. The performance will be hosted by BBC 3 radio presenter and artist Jumoké Fashola, featuring performances from Members of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Mind & Soul, Mixed Up Chorus, Music Connects, Sing For Freedom Choir, United Strings of Europe, Thames Opera Company and Write to Life.
Singing Our Lives, now in its sixth year, is produced by Together Productions in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Union Chapel, with generous support from the Arts Council England.
Tickets are free for refugees and asylum seekers, please get in touch with email@example.com
Meet the people behind Singing Our Lives
“My name is Jade Jackson, and I am from… Clapham Junction!” says Jade before bursting into laughter. Whenever the clouds above London generously leave enough space for the sun to shine on the city below, it makes Londoners cheerful, almost as if they were inwardly and outwardly celebrating the brighter side of life. You may think this is why Jade is smiling today, but in fact being out and about under the sun has a very special significance for her.
This afternoon we are in a church hall where once or twice a week for the past six months Jade has been joining rehearsals for the ‘Singing Our Lives’ project, run by the community-based organisation Together Productions.
Jade is ready for today’s rehearsal and explains: “Nowadays I am very open, but I used to hide in my room and not come out because I feared that people would laugh at me and say things about me, and this is not true. I used not to let people come near me, even if I could see they were nice because I thought that I was not going to be nice to them, and it made me so afraid. When you are tortured in your own country it is not good at all … torturing people is so bad."
"When I arrived in the UK, I could not even talk to anybody; when I tried to get out of my flat, if I saw somebody walking in the street, I used to run back inside. Now I feel free, walking everywhere and singing, because everybody is the same and we are free!"
Today, under the same sun, Jade and her beautiful smile radiate kindness, joy and hope: the signs of her own courage and resilience. Being part of the Singing Our Lives project gives her even more strength: “I really enjoy this group because everybody feels so safe here, as if we are friends and family, and whether you sing well or not, they will accept you and you learn … it is very good!”
Benedikt Humm, originally from Germany, has been living in the UK for over thirty years now and is also part of the Singing Our Lives project. He explains how rewarding it is to get together with people from all walks of lives: “It really is a lovely hot pot … a mixture of different people, cultures, backgrounds, and ages. It’s a creative, slightly chaotic, mix that really involves so many different people from all walks of life with different personalities that I just find so enriching. It really brings a lot of joy to be part of it!”. One of the takeaways for Benedikt is that,
“particularly working with some of our refugee singers – we are all more or less the same, all with similar needs … obviously some people have had very challenging backgrounds, but as humans we are so similar; we all want a little bit of comfort and a little bit of recognition, and this is what Singing Our Lives is really about.”
The recognition that Benedickt talks about is an important step in the process of healing from trauma and extreme circumstances. Yonas, who proudly describe himself as “one of the co-founders of the Sing for Freedom choir” is from East Africa and has been in the UK for twenty years.
The choirs and the Singing Our Lives project are catalysts for change in the community as they bring together people who may never otherwise have met, allowing them to connect, collaborate and create. They also have a positive impact on people’s lives: “Torture destroys your life,” explains Yonas, “I lost my confidence, and the choir boosted my confidence. I have the confidence to sing, to meet new people, integrate in the community … it has helped me a lot. That’s why I love this choir!”.
In Yonas’ words:
“We are survivors of torture; we lost everything, we don’t have families here, but this choir is our family. We struggle to find the confidence to associate with the community. For us, this is our integration in the community: it helps us boost our confidence, to rebuild our life.”
A member of the local community, Tim Drakes, explains how “within music we become one people. It breaks down differences, cultural barriers … it is so important”. For Tim too, being part of the Singing Our Lives project has helped him regain the confidence he lost due to some personal challenges: “I used to sing in a choir when I was a child, and as an adult I discovered that I still enjoyed singing. Over time, my confidence was able to grow; I’ve started to understand where I fitted in the world and what I could bring to the world”.
The Singing Our Lives project allows people to share their love for music and singing while also providing a safe space for sharing their stories. “It is interesting and revealing to hear people’s stories,” says Irene Hamilton, another member of the local community who has been part of the project for several years now. “Of course, I can’t say that I know what it is like being a refugee, but I now have a better understanding of this issue; we can’t just label refugees as if they were an alien group of people … they are just like you and I, and it made me think that given certain circumstance it could be any one of us … you only have to look at what’s going on in Ukraine.”
But how did the Singing Our Lives project start?
Co-founder Jeremy Haneman is, along with Holly Jones, co-director of Together Productions, the community-based organisation that runs the project.
“My parents and all my grandparents were refugees, so this is a personal issue for me,” says Jeremy. “Group singing goes back to the dawn of human history; it touches something very profound in us and enables bonds of affinity between people to form very swiftly.”
- How did your passion for music start?
J: I started piano lessons when I was 7, then played in the orchestras at school and it became an obsession! I then went on to study music at undergrad and postgrad in Australia and the UK. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing the piano and singing, so it’s a lifetime passion.
- How did the Singing Our Lives idea start?
J: We (Holly Jones and myself) were very concerned about the refugee crisis engulfing Europe in 2016 and the hostile attitude towards refugees in the UK, so we wanted to do something about it. My parents and all my grandparents were refugees, so this is a personal issue for me. We decided to commission a composer and a librettist to work with our various groups to write three songs. It went very well so every year we reinvent the project, and it seems to be growing and growing, now with people contributing from all over the world. Writing an opera is the next exciting phase for us…
- What was it that interested you in working specifically with people who have migrant, displacement, and torture backgrounds?
J: The way countries treat refugees is for me a measure of their humanity and compassion, and because of my family background (see above) it seemed really critical to explore if there was a way to change hearts and minds using the arts, without being overtly political, but starting with something very simple – bringing people who had probably never met a refugee before together with displaced people to work on a project as a team, to build bonds of friendship and empathy. We felt it was important to do projects with refugees rather than about them – and to make sure that all our work involves bringing local communities together. Choirs are one of the best and fastest ways there are to build community – the Singing Our Lives company has become like a wonderful family!
- How can singing be healing?
J: Group singing goes back to the dawn of human history; it touches something very profound in us and enables bonds of affinity between people to form very swiftly. Many studies have shown the incredible benefits that joining a choir can bring to your mental health – it really can be life-changing and is a safe space in which to express your feeling and emotions. It enables us to be more whole as human beings and performing can really get the spirit soaring!
- The Singing Our Lives project brings together people from very different backgrounds. Why do you think this encounter is so important?
J: Getting to know ‘the other’ is so important in life. Meeting people who are different to you enables us to see the common humanity we all have, what makes us the same no matter where we are from or what we have been through. It also enables us to realise that we can work and talk and eat and sing with people who might have very different opinions to us, but we can still recognise how much we are similar. “I’ll sing your song if you sing mine” – writing music, singing and performing together enables us to work on something amazing together in spite of our different histories, and that can be profound and very moving.
- What is your favourite song?
J: Such a hard question and it changes daily. Today it’s "Pastime Paradise" by Stevie Wonder.
Tickets are free for refugees and asylum seekers, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org