You never know what you’ll take away from the experience of attending a CMVic event. A banana peel desting to languish longtime in the seam of your bag, maybe. A head filled with fresh material and exciting inspiration; the buzz of being surrounded by your tribe and an empty water bottle, definitely. And for one Melbourne based singing leader who attended a CMVic Skills Day in Northcote last year, a chance meeting unexpectedly led to a whole new chapter of cultural and linguistic discovery and personal learning.
Twelve months ago, Jeannie Marsh, an experienced Melbourne based singing leader, was feeling the need to learn new songs, see what people were up to generally, and meet up with like minded souls. So she booked herself into a CMVic Singing Leaders’ Skills Day at Jika Jika in Northcote, a one-day Spring workshop, run by Jane Coker and Margaret Crichton.
Anne Marije Bussink, a young Dutch woman active in the Dutch community had also booked in, keen to see if she could gain enough skills to get a singing group or community choir happening at the Dutch Club in Carnegie. Anne Marije had noticed that people at the Club had an interest in singing songs together and thought a choir could be a really great way to tap into people’s interests across the generations. Jeannie recalls Anne Marije introducing herself along the lines of: ‘I’m not a musician, I’m here to learn the skills to teach the songs myself…. I love to sing, don’t know anything about leading a choir but I’ll give it a go….’
Thinking this was an amazing act and totally heroic, Jeannie approached Anne Marije at morning tea, confessing, ‘I don’t speak Dutch, I have no Dutch heritage but I do run choirs.’
Leading multi cultural choirs is something Jeannie is experienced in and loves to do, whether or not she speaks the language:
“It really interests me and giving people the opportunity to sing in their language is an incredibly powerful thing to be able to do for people.”
As well as working with the Iranian Women’s Choir through the Boite last year, Jeannie was involved with Canto Coro, a choir based in the Greek and Chilean communities for eleven years. Jeannie became totally immersed in learning the background, history and struggles of Latin America and her involvement with these communities through running the choir:
‘It was a seminal moment of my life across every level, a total highlight so much so that it became a major part of what I do… I was intoxicated, meeting all these amazing people and learning about their stories, as many of them had come here as exiles from their own land and just how much singing in their own language and singing their own music which had been banned in their land, (because it was used as a rallying cry in the times of the generals in Greece and Pinochet in Chile and singing national songs literally put you in the firing line.) meant to them.’
This experience opened Jeannie’s eyes to the people around her here in Melbourne and the power of the music and words to bring communities together and bearing witness to extraordinary things that had happened in people’s pasts. It also reiterated to her the need to form joyful, welcoming communities where people can just come and be with others who have either shared similar things or are empathetic towards them and prepared to fight for social justice.
Teaming up with Anne Marije and the ‘Dutchies’, was a step Jeannie felt able to take, in spite of not speaking any Dutch and because Dutch people speak such excellent English, Jeannie is able to conduct each session in English. If that sounds easy, Jeannie’s applied herself to teaching all of the songs in Dutch, seeking helpers who could translate the lyrics to give herself an understanding of context, emphasis, etc. beforehand. Otherwise, she says, “it’s just sounds.”
Back in March, Jeannie set aside time with Anne Marije and Margreta Kuijper, another Dutch woman, for a crash course in translation and pronunciation. This involved getting a rough idea of what a particular song was about, recording, listening and repeating the material slowly with rules of pronunciation emerging along the way and Jeannie taking notes.
Including Anne Marije and Margreta a core of about five people emerged giving time, energy, and vital support to get the Dutch Choir up and running. Resources were rustled up, dictionaries and websites were offered, even Skype sessions, it was obvious that Jeannie and Anne Marije had tapped into something people were receptive to and ready for. A trial run in June saw over 25 people turn out to sing at the Dutch Club Abel Tasman in Carnegie.
Biting the bullet, Jeannie booked the space for a further 10 sessions and committed to two community gigs at the club, which the Choir recently completed. Membership over the course of that period settled to a core of about 16; meeting on Saturday afternoons in the little heritage centre at the back of the club, surrounded by memorabilia of Dutch heritage from various periods, somewhere Jeannie describes as a very special place.
The Dutch have an incredibly rich and traditional culture not widely recognised internationally beyond iconic images of tulips and windmills. They love to sing and they love singing to a bit of Nederpop This love affair dates back to the 1940s and 50s with post war Cabaret style singing emerging with artists such as Wim Sonneveld. While Eurovision and Abba mania was rife across the globe in the 70s and 80s similar equally catchy material was being written in Holland but remained largely undiscovered: while Bjorn Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid were singing in English, in the Netherlands the songs were mostly written and sung in Dutch.
Now Jeannie and the Dutch Choir are doing their bit to give these pop songs a new lease of life, dusting them off, a tweak here and there in the arrangements and an airing to audiences in the Australian sunshine.
Het Dorp is a song from the 60s about nostalgia for the fast disappearing traditional village life which evokes tears when people sing it; as with all multi cultural choirs, the migration thing is complicated. Some choir members grew up here and are reclaiming their Dutch heritage; others who lived there for most of their lives and moved to Australia for family reasons may feel torn between two cultures and places to call home. Singing brings these emotions to the fore.
One of the earliest songs Jeannie sang with the choir was a simple children’s song about a chicken and a rooster with beautiful feathers and beautiful colours. It was easy for Jeannie to understand, simple to teach, and not at all daunting to the singers, some of whom hadn’t sung since primary school who were all familiar with it. In terms of establishing a bond within the new group it turned out to be gold. Everyone was inspired to share stories and childhood memories, and connections were quickly established.
The love of Nederpop within the group has led to Jeannie finally mastering Sibelius, something she has been meaning to get to grips with for a while, and she now sits down to arrange tunes, on pretty much a weekly basis. Naar de Zee is one of these, a boppy catchy pop song from a few years ago about riding to the beach on bicycles and having a great time with your mates. Sinds een dag of Twee is another fun pop song from the 80s that everyone seems to know and love to sing along with. Jeannie particularly recommends Brandend Zand which she describes as a ‘big tune, very well known and great for choir.’
And it isn’t just Jeannie who’s developed new skills through leading the choir; two of the singers, Chris and Margreta, picked up their guitar and clarinet for the first time in years and now accompany the choir for some of Jeannie’s arrangements, performing at the last gig.
‘Margreta was playing in this beautiful tone as though she’d only played yesterday. We workshopped things together and they both loved that aspect of practising. It’s about people reclaiming their instrument and being open to stuff and it’s what happens with a new group like this: you have no idea what’s going to happen and you have to be open to it… and stay calm!’
Jeannie’s tips for other choir leaders who may be trepidatious about leading songs in a new language is simply not to be afraid. ‘You can work it out… don’t let the language be a barrier, it’s all possible and it’s a very interesting process. For everyone.’
Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Jeannie Marsh.
Jeannie will be presenting a workshop about her experience with the Dutch Choir on Sunday, as part of the 2016 CMVic Singing Camp, this weekend, November 11-13, and the Dutch Choir’s new session block begins this Saturday, November 11.