Last night I sang in the annual Winter Concert. As usual, the Hebrew Center was packed, admission was free, we got the audience singing, and (as far as I could tell) everyone went home happy.
What’s not to like about this concert? We sing songs no one is sick of because most people in the audience have never heard them before. The songs come from all over the world. Nearly all relate to winter, the dark time of year, or the harvest season that precedes it. This year several of the songs came from Africa, East, West, and South. Another was in Hebrew. At least one came from the gospel tradition. Some were traditional, others composed. Some are rounds, others are in three- or four-part harmony. What a wonder the human voice is, especially when it blends with other human voices.
The singers are a varied, multi-generational lot, though the women and girls far outnumber the men. (In my years of singing in the chorus I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a boy, i.e., a male person too young to have children, in our ranks.) Not to worry: women like me who usually sing alto get to explore the lower end of our ranges. Everyone wants to sing alto because in these arrangements the altos usually get the melody. This year I sang tenor. I can’t harmonize for shit but I love to try, in the privacy of car or home or the anonymity of a large group of people. Slowly but surely I’m getting better at it.
Anyone can sing. Every year director Roberta Kirn sends out the call, and we convene for our first rehearsal in early November. You don’t have to read music. Roberta prepares a CD with all the songs on it, with the various parts broken out to make them easier to learn. I learn the songs driving around the island. Others learn them while walking or cooking or sitting at the computer. We have six weekly rehearsals and a dress rehearsal the day before the concert. For years we’ve rehearsed at the M.V. Public Charter School, where Roberta used to be the music teacher; officially we’re the Charter School Community Chorus, but mostly we’re a pickup group that re-forms every year, albeit with a solid core of returnees who know the drill and at least some of the songs. This year we rehearsed at the Unitarian Universalist Society chapel in Vineyard Haven.
Roberta is a woman with a vision. In her vision music is part of our daily lives, not just because we’re listening to it but because we’re making it, singing, drumming, and dancing it. For years she’s been a protegée of Ysaye Maria Barnwell, longtime member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and the originator and leader of Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition workshops. In last night’s concert, we sang “Breaths,” a setting by Ysaye Barnwell of a poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. I was in the audience when Sweet Honey recorded it for their live album Good News: 1980, All Souls Unitarian Church, 16th Street, N.W. It’s not often that my Vineyard life connects so viscerally with my D.C. days, and wouldn’t you know it would be through music?
I’m not a musician, but I can’t live without music. I’ve got music playing almost all the time, in the car, in my apartment — not, however, when I’m out walking. When I’m out walking, I might be humming or singing or listening to the words and images streaming through my head or just paying attention to the sounds around me.
Something I’ve loved about Martha’s Vineyard ever since I got here is that it’s possible to take part in all sorts of things even if you aren’t, and don’t aspire to be, an expert. Theater, politics, music. DEMOCRACY IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT, says the old League of Women Voters bumper sticker. Damn straight. Neither is music. Walt Whitman heard America singing. Mostly I hear America squabbling. Maybe we all need to sing louder.