Mariachimona Choir workshop

12/10/2010 - Fun Team

The background

Late this August (2010) I went to visit some family of mine in Ndola, Zambia. Zambia is a sort of heart shaped country in sub Saharan Africa, bordering with 8 other countries and Ndola is situated in the crease of the heart, north central, very close to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s border. It’s the country’s joint second largest town and has a history of wealth due to it’s copper mines in the surrounding area. My Grandfather originally went there with my Grandmother to work for an oil company in the 70s, shortly after Zambia won independence from the British and at that time Ndola was a vibrant, developed and well maintained town. Their daughter, my Aunty visited them for a long summer break one year and during that break she met my uncle, son of an Englishman ex-pat and his Polish wife. The two fell in love and married there. Everyone except my uncle’s parents left Zambia by the end of the 70′s. My uncle and Aunty, after working in Saudi Arabia for many years, decided to return in 2001 to help the orphans of aids victims and set up some agricultural projects. My elderly grandparents followed in 2007 to be close to family without having to put up with English weather (where the rest of us lived). After a drop in copper prices, the government selling mining rights abroad and a good dose of corruption, Ndola turned into an unproductive, dilapidated and potholed African town.

On my first visit there a few years ago to be best man for my cousin as he wed a lovely Zambian girl, one of the workers on their small farm took me to a village called Mariachimona, a few miles out of Ndola towards the Congalese border. The village had a choir headed by a man named Spencer and consisted of about 10-15 vocalists, 2 home-made banjos and a home-made bass guitar complete with beat keeper. They played and sang some of their worship songs and I was enchanted by the coarse vocal sounds and lilting grooves.
On this last visit, while half way through a very interesting Masters course in Musical Leadership at the Guildhall School in London, I got in touch with Spencer and asked if I’d be able to try out some of the music making and leading work I do at school with the choir. Although evidently not quite sure what I was asking for exactly, Spencer agreed and I arranged two 3 hour sessions with them out in the village with the aim of composing some new material.

The workshop

I arrived with a big bag of tomatoes from my Grandparent’s land and was met with a performance of two welcome songs. The music was just as enchanting as I remembered it and although I was greeted with very serious faces from all (a mark of respect I was told by my cousin’s wife) I wasted no time in getting some warm up and ice-breaking exercises going. I got the group to do a series of stretches and fun simple rhythmical exercises. A lot of the choir seemed really unsure of what I was doing at times, looking very perturbed. I learned later that some of them were unsure as to whether I was doing some sort of witchcraft with them….something which is widely used and feared in this part of the world!

After our warm ups I conducted a simple beat making task which I learned from my tutors at the Guildhall; we stand in a circle, I choose some people to crouch and leave others standing. Each standing person gets 2 claps and a rest, each crouching gets 1 and a rest….you then read round the circle clapping out the pattern like a musical score. I then asked members of the choir to experiment choosing who should stand and crouch and finally asked them to decide on a small part of the resulting rhythm to be looped and turned into the basis for our new song. We ended up with a pattern in 5/4 timing which is different to the 4/4 or 3/4 patterns the choir are used to working with. I split the group into 2, asking the singers to experiment with vocal ideas and the instrumentalists to focus on finding a bass line and riffs….jumping between the two and employing the help of my very musically talented cousin, Amanda to find a common musical key. By the end of the day, we had a strong start to our song with accompanying dance moves.

The next day a lot of things had changed, the bass was tuned differently, the song has slipped into 3/4 timing and we had a slightly different line-up of musicians…..all part of the challenge. We got the song back on track and developed it further, creating another vocal part and an arrangement, all the time ensuring I was asking the choir to make as many of the decisions as they would. At the end we added some percussion (bamboo sticks hitting the ground and a twig style yard brush hitting the back of a metal bowl). It sounded fab. We made some final adjustments and played our new song. Everyone had really started feeling this 5/4 groove and it felt like a piece of music. Of course it would have been great to have had more time to develop it and refine it, but in about 4.5 hours, we had something very new and interesting. Spencer assured me would be added to their repertoire and I hope it has been……although I do wonder what time signature it’s in now.

At the time of writing, James is in the second year of a 2 year masters in Leadership at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. He is part of a new organisation called ‘Orchestrate’ which uses a pool of skilled multi-national musicians/composers/arrangers/leaders to deliver musical projects. Their work includes; Corporate team building events, working creatively with orchestras of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, educational, community, cross art and cross cultural projects. If you would like any more information on this project or any other work, please contact James at All being well, there’ll be a good website in the near future.

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