Jul 14, 2015 Music
This article by Fiona Samuel first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Metro. Photographs by Jane Ussher.
When you walk in the door, there are only four things you can be. By day you might be a project manager working on building superyachts, or a mental health nurse or a sex therapist or a builder or a student, but here you are a bass, a tenor, an alto or a soprano. It’s as simple as that. So you go to your section and mingle with others of your kind. You get your water bottle out, drop your day like an old coat and get ready to make some noise.
It’s Tuesday night at the Unitarian Church on Ponsonby Road and the Jubilation Choir is in the house.
Jennifer takes the warm-up. If she’s not here, Isolde takes it. If Isolde’s not here, we fall into disarray and stand around underneath the heaters gossiping about our lives, but tonight let’s say we’re doing it properly. So — stick your tongue out. All the way. Now say, “Buzzing bees and babbling brooks bask in the brisk bright breeze.” Fast as you can. You’ll sound like a drunken fool, but when you put your tongue back in, everything inside your mouth works better. You sound clearer and brighter. No matter what your day was like, already you feel happier.
Down To The River”. If you’ve seen O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you know this one — men and women, clad in long white robes, wander out of the forest softly singing this country gospel, and the escaped convicts’ eyes bug out. They are keen to be saved. Who wouldn’t be? We do it without the forest and the mist, but the essence of the song is the same: it’s a call to gather. Each verse summons sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, sinners. Sinners last and loudest. That’s everyone. All are welcome.
We are not a religious choir — it’s up to each of us what we do and don’t believe — but we sing these songs because all the pain and joy of life is in them. They seek, to borrow from James K Baxter (who knew about this stuff), a cure for being human.
“Learn To Forgive”. This is one of Rick’s — he wrote it, and Jean with the long black hair like a cloak sings it. “If you be without sin, cast the first stone. If you think that you’re perfect, you’ll be happy alone…” Rick Bryant, a bluesman and soul singer for upwards of 40 years, is the central pole that holds up our tent. He might dispute this. He probably would — it’s a group enterprise and he is a modest man — but there is an authority that comes from walking the walk, and Rick brings it.
Shout Trouble Over”: this is Jackie. The sopranos on a good night can break windows down the street and compete with fire engines. They’re the ladies with the high voices, and Jackie soars over all them like something shot from a cannon. She’s loud as a siren, then soft as a sigh in the refrain, sung six times: “Teach me how to pray…”
What is a prayer? It’s a hope spoken aloud — a wish, a plea for the things we care about and want to protect. We all have these hopes and wishes, these requests, but if we don’t go to church (and most of us don’t), how can we say those things? Who do we ask for help?
A new one, “Wild Horses”. What? Jagger and Richards among all this? Well yes, because we’re learning this song for A Strange Day’s Night — The Rolling Stones, a celebration of the music of the Stones. And the Stones learned most of what they knew from the black bluesmen of the US, so it feels somehow weirdly right that an a capella gospel choir, steeped in the same musical brew, should take on the loveliest ballad those two white boys ever wrote. Some say Gram Parsons had a hand in it too, and he probably did. That’s the way music works. That’s the way a choir works. It’s never just one person.
We put our glasses back in their cases, we say our good nights, we turn off the heaters and the lights, we go home. It happens every week. Something has changed inside us.
If you come with trouble, you feel lighter. If you come with doubt and fear, they have shrunk like a sock in the wash. If you come with heartache, it is eased.
On nights like these, we see each other through birth, death, marriage, divorce, happy times and hard times. We know that these things will come, and that we will come too. We will come to choir on Tuesday.