I joined Côr Gobaith in 2006, pretty much right at the beginning. Molly Scott-Cato, now a Green Party MEP, noticed I had a loud voice during Social Forum Cymru rallies and demos in 2006 and invited me to join Côr Gobaith. SFC was a long weekend gathering of activist civil society in Wales that drew in more than 500 people and had a huge programme of speakers, workshops and music. During SFC marches and rallies I’d be chanting ‘This is what democracy looks like’ through my megaphone. Molly was obviously impressed by the volume. There was an early Côr Gobaith meeting upstairs in the Cambria that I recall well. The first practice was in in Palas Y Bobl, a squat in long empty pub, the Boar’s Head, near the magistrates’ court in Aberystwyth. The very first public performance was at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth, a benefit gig or part of a peace action, I can’t remember which.
Côr Gobaith sounds much better than Choir of Hope, the English translation, which always puts me in mind of the Band of Hope, which was (is?) a temperance organisation for working-class children! When we discussed a name for the choir and came up with Côr Gobaith, what was in my mind was a quote from Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the dark: The untold history of people power: ‘I believe in hope as an act of defiance or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime.’ Taking our cue from SCF, Côr Gobaith has always been about ‘working for peace, justice, environmental sustainability and an end to poverty’. I think the choir is very aware of a feminist political heritage, feels part of the peace movement, and is very conscious of being a choir of people who live in and are part of Wales. Again from SCF, I hope the choir continues to try to bring the world into Wales and to take Wales out into the world, both in solidarity with others. That seems very much in tune with the Greenham Common legacy that members bring to Côr Gobaith and which we actively develop.
What difference do we make? Well, the nihilist part of me thinks ‘none at all’ with respect to what seems to be ever-increasing violence, oppression and environmental degradation in the world. The realist part of me, though, thinks that we are doing those critical acts of defiance – by singing at and particularly as protests, acts of dissent: not in our name. We also do acts of care, I think, regularly singing to raise money for MSF, for example. Personally, I think it’s vital to keep the balance between justice seeking and care giving, politics and love, if you like. I include giving each other care within the choir – which is not always easy! So, I think we make a small difference to the causes we support financially, but maybe we make a big difference in some people’s lives – especially our own – by activating that defiant hope.
Musically, Côr Gobaith’s always a personal challenge on different levels. Though I don’t read music, I can just about hold a tune on my own. But not when someone else sings. I’m basically a mimic, so I’ll tune in to the strongest voice I can hear. There are a few specific voices in the choir that I have to trust in completely and which I find it easy to tune into. On another level, I’m not a fan of listening to choirs – I don’t, in fact, listen to any choral music unless it’s live street singing at a demo (or at the annual Street Choirs festival). And I’m not a particular fan of earnest peace and justice songs either, nor of old socialist anthems, and particularly not of hippy-drippy songs with dopey apolitical sentiments! Luckily, the choir don’t sing many naff songs like that! I always strive for us to have a more up-beat, contemporary and political musical engagement: I love our African and more bluesy songs best, though some of the protest songs and even classical songs are great too: Bread and Roses and Finlandia, for instance. Although, I don’t listen choirs, I love singing with Côr Gobaith. I’m not sure a non-political choir would hold my interest, although I do love learning new things musically.
Beyond the musical, the choir is a great way of being political with others without too many meetings. Our weekly meeting is enough for me, and I’m very glad we follow principles of consensus decision making, if not the strict technologies. It’s not all about brevity. I really like it when we have to resolve or at least acknowledge conflicting views, like whether we spend money to plant a peace tree in Aberystwyth or donate it to help refugees. No matter what the decision or how uncomfortable the debate, I think something good always comes out of the process and our solidarity is usually enhanced. Because I think we retain that non-party political civil society ethic from SCF, we don’t discuss it, but I know that the choir contains supporters of the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the Labour Party, as well as anarchists and maybe even the odd Lib Dem. And you have to be odd to be a Lib Dem! (That’s a joke. Sort of.)
Singing is much better than placard waving and chanting, for me at least. And infinitely better than trying to give our flyers to an apathetic or antagonistic public! I like social side of the choir too. Some of my best mates are in Côr Gobaith. But so are people I probably wouldn’t otherwise relate too. Both aspects are good for me.
Deciding my best Côr Gobaith moment is a tough one. I do remember singing at a wool against weapons demo at RAF Aberporth where military drones are tested. A police sergeant made cars wait as he allowed us to block the road at a roundabout. Then he made them turn off their engines to respect the singing (maybe only in Wales!). I loved out first trip up Manchester as a choir taking part in a demo at the Tory party conference. And we repeated that in 2015 with a number of us joining a Campaign Choirs choir at a rally against the Tories at their conference. Marching with all the choirs down Penglais hill when we hosted the Street Choir Festival in 2013 was special. The times we went up to Faslane as a choir… There have been so many good moments and they’re so different - I’m sure the best is still to come!
Our worst moments, for me, are when we bicker at and/or mess up a performance. I don’t think we’re so great at performing on stage. We’re better on the street and ad lib maybe. It’s something that I hope we will work on. I’m also always sad when people leave the choir for any reason, I miss them and their voices.
My favourite songs? Again, there are so many. I like Down in the River because I wrote some quite weird words to it after a choir trip to Faslane where we collectively brought together rebel clown logic and street choir singing in that song. I’ve always loved singing the first verse as a duet with Sam Saville – the nearest I’ll ever get to a solo, and better anyway! To sing, I also love Ain’t Gonna Study War, Master of War, Freedom Song and our recent adaptation of Grace Petrie’s Mark my Words. Nkosi Sikelele has a special place in my heart because of my background of anti-apartheid activism, living in Zimbabwe for a few years, and because it was one of the first songs the choir learned. And we do it well.
The choir has changed somewhat since I joined. Difficult though it was, the change of MD has, in the end, been a good progression, I think. People have taken responsibility and some have evidently learned so much, developed so much musically and otherwise. It’s always a struggle to recruit enough male voices and younger people, and I hope we can keep pressing on those fronts – diversity is stimulating. Although, it’s always changing, that ethics inherited from SFC, feminism and radical politics continues to give the choir a sound (sic) foundation.
Personally, I’d like Côr Gobaith to take more independent direct actions. I’d also like us to get out and about even more and particularly participate in Campaign Choirs actions. Numerically, we ay have been the best represented Campaign Choir in London in February 2016 at the Stop Trident demo! As I said, we could learn more about performance. The way we operate works pretty well, but I think we could learn from having workshops on, for instance, consensus decision-making, just to keep us developing. We could do better at raising money busking too, if we had people who would turn up to support us and rattle the bucket. I’d like to develop the choir as not only singing members. As ever, I have SO many ideas for projects, I don’t know where to start: Going to busk in Machynlleth, Lampeter, Aberaeron etc.; Have performance workshops; Doing more singing as direct action, sometimes with a wider Campaign Choirs choir; Going to places like the refugee camp in Calais to sing and do workshops (also learn songs from them)… If we can all keep finding the energy and bring in some new energies, I am really looking forward to the next ten years!