Tangos and tientos

Recently I joined a choir. There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is that I’ve always liked singing. Even if you know me and have never heard so much as a peep let alone a yodel of song pass my lips, it is true: when I’m sure that there is no one to hear I can belt.

(This is not entirely true. There is one exception, my sister. The reason she can be an audience is due to her own tone deafness and massive volume, and that I’m only ever allowed to sing backing vocals or secondary characters. May Walt protect those who dare to try Gaston, Mulan or Aladdin in her presence.)

Back before I got all self-conscious about singing I took part in the school choir, and first learnt the joy of joining my voice with others. I loved the feeling of being buoyed along by our combined song, and the strange sense of losing my own voice among the others. Is this is true of everyone else, that communal singing deafens the singer to their own voice, even though they can quite clearly hear those of their neighbours?
In addition to a love of choral singing that being in the choir gave me, I am to this day word perfect on Can you feel the love tonight, I believe I can fly and Colours of the wind. Which hasn’t come in handy yet, but you live in hope.
It was in high school that I was found unsuitable for the choir, in a moment that I still remember clearly. My very impressionable and easily deflated teenage self took this as a big blow, and forbore to sing in public again. My bedroom with the volume on high or in the solitude of an empty care were another matter.

Then I moved to Sweden and decided to make a new life, taking advantage of new possibilities and opportunities to do things that I’d long wanted to try. Much of which ended up providing material for this blog, through a chicken/egg cycle of doing things in order to write about them, and writing about the things that I do. In this mood of ‘why not?’ a friend suggested joining a choir that she’d be in for a few terms, to which I answered after a thoughtful pause, ‘why not?’ surprising both her and myself. As with any new undertaking there was a problem: I don’t speak a word of Spanish.

Lyrics

Lyrics

When you’re singing flamenco songs, it turns out that knowing the words isn’t all that vital. As long as you can sing emotion, you’ll make it. As you can well imagine there is a lot of emotion in the tangos, tientos, bulerías and fandangos, mostly longing, despair and the pain of love.

Our teacher can belt, raise her voice to the ceiling and bring it down with a flourish, leading us through songs that seemed impossible and out the other side. Other members of the choir have been part of it since it began and so know a number of the songs by heart, and know at least a smattering of Spanish. As their voices rise and fall I stumble along, trying to work out the pronunciation on the fly and realising how much energy real, proper athletic singing takes. As we pass from song to song I lose my voice among the others, trying to concentrate on the rhythm and tone of the teacher and the others, until all I can think about is the song, in words I don’t understand.

A room full of love

Many months ago, not very long after we’d arrived in Sweden, I found out about a school that I very much wanted to work at. I was at the time looking for relief teaching work, and sending my CV hither and thither in the hopes of finding something, anything.
I added an extra sentence to the email, and hoped that my enthusiasm if not my experience would attract someone’s notice. It did. I got an interview and soon found myself Englishing at ladies from all ages and backgrounds, coming in every few weeks or so to cover for sick leave or training.
In time I was asked to take over a class for the second half of a term, and then this year I was asked to take a class for a whole term. I obviously said yes to both, having grown to love the school, for opening its doors to me and for what it represented.

Fast forward a little to last Friday. The term is over, the last class has flown past (don’t forget the deadline for logbooks ladies!) and while for some this is a pause before getting back to the books next term, for others it’s the end. Graduation day. This term it includes not only many students, some of whom I have taught, but a teacher who has meant a lot to me.
There were no trucks or sailor hats for these women, but rather a party. It celebrated the ending of term, the beginning of the holidays, what had been achieved, who was leaving and what the school had come to mean to those who were a part of it. And love. A lot of that.

It started with one of the MCs stalking off in a huff. The huffer and huffee were students of mine, I was proud to see, and the huff obviously false. They did a quick costume change and then sashayed back into the room in a suit and a cheerleader outfit to pounding music. From there the party was launched, and the first order of business was to launch ourselves in good order at the smörgåstortor (sandwich cakes) along the sideboard, which had been made by one of the classes. They were all vegan and tastier than I would have thought, given the suspicion I have viewed them with in the past.
As myself and the other teachers and students stuffed ourselves with cake, a stool was set up at the front of the room. A young woman sat on it with a guitar and started to sing. She sang about friendship, surprises, learning and her experiences at the school. As she sang I looked to my left to see two teachers hugging as tears fell down their cheeks, and behind them the principal’s eyes were overflowing. When the song ended the room erupted, cheers rising and tears falling from all parts of the audience of 100 or so women. From that moment, if not before, we were all in it together.

The song for the school

The song for the school

What followed was 2 hours of dancing, poetry, speeches and films, the students and teachers performing to each other in turns.
A group of mostly Somali women did an interpretive song and dance with the theme of water.
The media class played 4 short films, about a feminist taxi making it’s rounds of town, a dreamy short about trans issues, a stop-motion raft almost capsizing and finally a music video for ‘I Will Always Love You.’ They ended the last video with a sing-along of the last chorus, accompanied by the rest of the room and with rainbow flags waving behind them.
‘Jag jävla älska dig’ (I f*****g love you) cried one of the MCs as they sat down. There were many hugs.
Teachers impersonated each other and then famous feminists to huge applause and laughter, the principal at one point upstaging one of the teachers with an uncanny impersonation of her which she didn’t at first clock on to. Marie Curie/the science teacher impressed us all with some flashy test tube tricks, and was followed by speeches from Frida Kahlo, Simone de Bauvoir, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emma Goldman and others.

Audience and bunting

Audience and bunting

One teacher called us cracks in the wall, inheritors of those that had brought down the Berlin Wall, and told us to never give up.
Then a student blew us all away with her story. She went on stage bedecked in bright blue robes and shimmering jewellry, telling us that from the time she was a child she had been by teachers that she couldn’t achieve what she wanted, and told by her mother to keep doing what she needed regardless of what anyone said. In SFI (the free Swedish course all immigrants do) the teacher expressed disbelief that she got the highest marks. No, she said, I will show you that I am more than you think. She switched languages and belted out ‘Still I Rise‘ by Maya Angelou, bringing yet more deafening cheers and tears to the room.
A poem was performed in Farsi and a song sung in Swedish by another student, who lead a group of students and teachers in a singing line, encouraging them all to launch into a second performance with much enthusiasm.
Soon after my class performed their disconnected, collected lines of poetry, and one of them, who had been one of the most nervous of my students took part in an energetic flashmob dance.
The party was now drawing to a close, and before it ended the singer from the beginning was called back onto stage for an encore. There were fewer laughs and tears this time, but at the last line love and applause rocked around the room to calls for it to become the official song of the school.

After which the principal tore up her prepared speech, declaring that nothing she could have prepared could possibly follow what had come before. She told us that this day, these experiences, were knots that we would tie on the pack that we all carried with us, strengthening it and marking a stage of our journey. Then we all joined together to clean up the room and the stage became a dance floor, Persian dance music thumping away as teachers and students twirled in a circle, taking turns shimmying in the centre. A woman in a wheelchair got an especially big applause as she was pulled on, and a few more eyes were full yet again.

The dance floor getting underway

The dance floor getting underway

I got hugs and flowers, thanking the teacher who was leaving who had first called me in and being thanked by a student for speaking up for her. I left hoping to be able to keep the feeling of the day intact. Perhaps by writing it down I’ll keep it alive, so that even if I never visit the community again, the feeling of love will never fade.