Radical music

1 February 2024Comment

'Make us live as brothers and forget that we were foes'

Some years ago, I recorded my best friend’s grandad, Stuart Gilbert, talking about his experiences as a conscientious objector and of doing voluntary work at home and overseas with Service Civil International (SCI).*

I asked Stuart why he refused to participate in national service in 1948. The most common reasons for conscientious objection to military service were either religious or connected with a specific political ideology.

For Stuart, it was something different. ‘You…

1 December 2023Comment

'The children are always ours, every single one'

Sometimes the song is silence.

In the context of radical singing, I’ve only felt this once before, during the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in 2020. At that time I felt that sharing my voice in song wasn’t the right element to bring to some of these protests and gatherings; that as a white person my job in that moment was to shut up and listen, and then to amplify the voices of black people at home and internationally, alongside participating in conversations within…

1 October 2023Comment

'I walked home in tears after the first two rehearsals because it felt so pertinent'

Last month, I sang Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time as part of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. It is a large choral and orchestral work that was sparked by Tippett’s reaction to the Nazi pogrom of 1938 called Kristallnacht, and which he described ‘as an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible’. It was informed by Tippett’s complex personal history, exploring deeply at different times Communism, Socialism and pacifism.

One of…

1 August 2023Review

The Palestine Museum, 2023; available free online at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXQzLdW4zVs  

Reem Kelani's online concert For the People By the Sea was hosted by the Palestinian Museum, in Birzeit, just a few miles north of Jerusalem. And while the physical museum is important, they are equally dedicated to curating online resources that shine a light on Palestinian experience and cultural life. 

Reem is a Palestinian singer based in London, from where this concert was live-streamed, and is available to watch for free all over the world. Because of the Nakba (…

1 August 2023Comment

'Remember Chipko and embrace the trees.'

‘Oh, bonny Portmore, I am sorry to see such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree.…’

These words begin an Irish lament from Country Antrim, sung for an aged oak that fell in a great storm in 1760.

It is the oldest ‘environmental justice’ song (as we might call it today) sung in the English language that I’ve been able to source. (Please do let me know if you know of other early songs with this theme!)

As with all issues of environmental justice, the critique in this…

1 June 2023Comment

'We will break the siege, and we will bring down the wall with patience and steadfastness'

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba: 75 years since hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes; 75 years since over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed, since ‘home’ was taken away. Palestinians call this ‘the Nakba’, which translates as ‘the Catastrophe’.

We mark the Nakba on 15 May every year, which is also International Conscientious Objectors Day.

There is a poetic beauty in this, as increasing numbers of…

2 April 2023Comment

'Hearts starve as well as bodies'

I first heard the song ‘Bread and Roses’ sung by Edinburgh folksinger Eileen Penman. In 2009, we were collating a booklet of songs as part of the ‘Gude Cause’ project celebrating 100 years since the first women’s suffrage march in Edinburgh. ‘Bread and Roses’ was one of the songs she brought to the table, a song that strongly connects women’s movements with labour movements.

James Oppenheim wrote the poem ‘Bread and Roses’ in December 1911, possibly after reading a speech by Chicago…

1 February 2023Comment

'We can only be missing out by narrowing our gaze.'

In my work as a community musician and singing teacher, I am a member of the Natural Voice Network (NVN).

As a community of teachers, we believe that everybody has the right to use their voice, that sound and movement are innate expressions of the human animal, and that it is the constrictive societal structures and attitudes surrounding us that prevent many people from feeling able to exercise this right.

We teach songs from all over the world, sharing in the oral tradition of…

1 December 2022Comment

'They always think they can silence the singer, but they can never silence the song.'

In Iran since the 1979 revolution, women have been banned from singing solo in front of men who are unrelated to them. This is just one of many restrictions forced upon Iranian women during this time.

In September, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died in custody after being arrested by the ‘morality police’ because her clothes were judged to be ‘revealing’. Just a few threads of her hair were visible outside the edge of her hijab.

At Mahsa’s funeral, thousands…

1 October 2022Comment

'Sometimes, making radical music is about using our creativity to help to bring people together in community to support each other to feel'

In 1923, my granny went to study at the Royal College of Music to be a piano teacher. She loved to play the piano more than almost anything, and when she married my grandfather she had to give up working. She carried on playing, but there was always a thread of sadness that she wasn’t allowed to teach. My mum was also a beautiful pianist, though for pleasure rather than profession, and she trained first as a librarian and later as a person-centred counsellor.

Before she died, I…

1 August 2022Comment

'The clocks are turning back now, and everyone must add their voice to the chorus'

Just as the election of Trump caused ripples of increased racism and misogyny the whole world over, so the overturning of Roe v Wade by the US supreme court on 24 June has empowered those who seek to restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare far beyond the borders of the USA.

In Scotland, there has been a sharp and necessary increase in campaigning to introduce buffer zones around reproductive health centres so that women do not have to face harassment when accessing…

1 June 2022Comment

'What filled my heart so much this May Day was being able to see the solidarity.'

Many of us met in person this year for our first May Day together since 2019. And let me tell you, it was pretty darn exciting!

There were singers, CND marchers, Extinction Rebellion campaigners, pipe bands, young socialists, abortion rights campaigners, Living Rent campaigners, Ukraine Solidarity, young communists, samba drummers, the Radical Independence Campaign, anarchists, and even a gaggle of mummers.

And, of course, there were folk from lots of different unions, with a…

1 April 2022Comment

'It is banned in Russia, and you can be fined for singing it. Such is the danger of song.'

I have a postcard above my desk of a photo Lee Miller captured of the opera singer Irmgard Seefried. She is singing an aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the bombed-out remains of the Vienna opera house in 1945. The image embodies the words of the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović, when asked how he could continue to play music when bombs are being dropped all around: ‘No, the question is how can people drop bombs when there is such beautiful music?’

In 1899, the…

1 February 2022Comment

What point is there in the struggle if not to experience joy together?

Desmond Tutu planned his own funeral, including the music.

It was a simple affair, with a choir singing some of his favourite hymns, some in his home tongue, Setswana.

One of his favourite hymns, ‘Thato ya hao’ includes the line: ‘Give us the joy of all the things you love’.

Joy in the struggle, and the struggle to truly live freely, whoever we are, is a big part of the legacy he leaves us.

What point is there in the struggle if not to experience joy…

1 December 2021Comment

Penny Stone meets the Minga Indigena delegation to COP26

We’ve been privileged in Glasgow during COP26 to have the Minga Indígena delegation of Indigenous leaders from across the American continent.

They have eloquently shared their experiences, fears and hopes alongside a clarion call for global unity and action. And woven through their sharing, like writing through seaside rock, has been song and dance as well as the holding of reflective and connective spaces.

They have called on us in the Western world to recognise that we are…