The aim of the Hands Up for Trad Community Music awards is to showcase and celebrate the outstanding practice and great things going on in Scotland’s community music sector to the wider public and media.
Congratulations to Protest in Harmony who have been nominated in the Community Music Project of the Year category. We asked them the following questions.
Tell us more about yourself.
Protest in Harmony is a radical singing group based in Edinburgh, meeting monthly. We sing songs of protest: our themes include peace, Palestine, the struggle against the cuts, anti-racism, solidarity with refugees, the attacks on workers’ conditions, and damage to the environment and the resulting impact on lives. We approach all our activities with great joy, creativity and a sense of solidarity.
We are not affiliated to any political, environmental or religious group. Rather, we are an ever-expanding and flexible community of individuals who believe that song can be a powerful, positive force in the world. We meet once a month and sessions are inclusive and open to all, whether experienced singers or complete beginners. We also facilitate occasional singing and song writing workshops on various themes, for example with college students on anti-Islamophobia.
What unites us is our belief in the significance of the songs and our love of singing them together in harmony. The choir is facilitated by three excellent and experienced song leaders who make singing accessible to everybody who comes along, with no auditions and no judgements.
We aim to empower people through song, to help people find a voice and to sing in solidarity with oppressed people and those whose voices have been silenced throughout the world. We draw on the rich worldwide repertoire of political songs including those of the US Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Apartheid struggle and human rights struggles in Latin America. We also write our own songs about current issues. We are part of the UK Campaign Choirs network.
How long have you or your group organisation been involved in this work and tell us a wee bit about how it all started?
Our group started in 2003 after members had felt surprised and disappointed at the lack of singing on the huge ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ march in Glasgow. We had a strong belief that, rather than just shouting slogans, singing in the streets is an inherently positive thing to do. When bystanders hear shouting in the street they tend to feel worried and even threatened; when they hear singing they tend to feel intrigued and are drawn in closer.
We have since sung on scores of marches and demonstrations, at political events and fundraising concerts, and we have found that singing together is life-enhancing, and inherently welcoming and inclusive: at every event members of the public step forward and join in. Politicians attending demonstrations have also joined in some of our songs, including the First Minister of Scotland, and even attending police officers are sometimes roused to sing along too.
What have you or your group/organisation got planned for the next 12 months?
The year of the choir has a rhythm, punctuated by regular commitments: International Conscientious Objection Day (15th May), International Workers’ Memorial Day (28th April), Street Choirs Festival (June/July), Campaign Against the Arms Trade street stall (December), annual commemoration of the Bhopal disaster (December), Open Shuhada Street – solidarity with Palestine, (February), and Hiroshima Day (6th August). In addition, we always have a harmonious presence at events which protest against nuclear weapons and austerity cuts. This year for the first time we are joyfully participating in the Pride march in Edinburgh in June. In September we will be coordinating a mass choir to sing at The Nae Nukes Anywhere rally at Faslane on 22nd September to put pressure on the UK Government to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We plan to run workshops to increase awareness and participation and to organise a singing event in Glasgow in addition to the Faslane rally.
We will be Singing Freedom Songs for Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday on Portobello Beach in July around a bonfire. We are hoping that passers-by will join in singing songs that recall the struggle against Apartheid.
Over the past year two of our members made a 50-minute film, Our Voices Resound, about Protest in Harmony. Over the next year we plan to publicise the film as a way of letting more people know about the choir and the possibilities for getting involved.
Recently we have sent video clips of the choir singing in support of different people and groups – e.g. Free Ahmed Tamini and the Yoik on the Beach in advance of the Paris climate change talks. We will continue to send these messages of solidarity to others around the world.
What has been the highlight of your or your group/organisation’s experience to date?
It is hard to pick just one of the many events, marches and rallies in which we have participated since the beginning. Perhaps the Make Poverty History march in 2005 represents what we are all about:
In 2005 Protest in Harmony co-ordinated massed singing on the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh, when around 250,000 people demonstrated against the policies of the G8 governments, who were meeting in Gleneagles. PiH contacted 25+ community choirs from across the UK and internationally. We developed a joint repertoire and organised a mass rehearsal of the combined groups, totalling about 350+ singers, before singing on the march through the street of the capital. Again, many bystanders, as well as fellow demonstrators, joined in some of the singing.
A recent event encapsulates the positive effect protest can have to make changes in the world:
PIH sang songs written by our own leaders in the UN house in Edinburgh to celebrate the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to ICAN, the campaign group who brought The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to the United Nations for signature on the 7th July 2017.
These are two of the expressions of our political activism in which we have been involved. They will not be the last!
How does it feel to be nominated for this award?
We are somewhat ambivalent about this.
Most of us are cautious about the competitive awards culture which doesn’t always sit easily with our belief that singing is a universal, non-competitive and collective activity. However, we would love to be able to bring protest singing to a wider audience, and we realise that this award is primarily about the promotion of community music in all its diverse forms. So we are delighted that this nomination recognises PIH’s part in building protest singing in Scotland/Edinburgh.We believe that being nominated for this award has the potential to remind people outside of our “usual suspects” about the role of radical music in bringing about change. Our song leaders have an enormously broad knowledge of, and experience in, teaching traditional and modern radical songs from around the world. These inspire the choir and others who hear us to think about protest music and its contribution to a better world.
We love that we can protest in four-part harmony about awful things; that the choir helps us find a voice about the issues we really care about; that it brings beauty into the fight against injustice and oppression, and that it brings non-violent resistance into the heart of our lives. And we love that it can be enormous fun!
Protest in Harmony has helped many of us to rediscover our voices. It’s a source of joy to be able to take a stand alongside like-minded people on the issues we care about in such a non-violent, life-enhancing and uplifting way.
We love to share this joy and commitment with others. Protest in Harmony has become a vital way for many of us to express our commitment to working for change in the world and one that brings so much beauty in the face of despair and hardship.
What unites us is our belief in the meaning of the songs and our love of singing them together in harmony. The singular power of music gives shape, gives voice, gives life to our wider concerns. What unites us is our conviction that the power of music, our belief in the meaning of the songs and our love of singing them together in harmony may contribute to making change in the world. There is a better way!
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