'People are made to shine'
I very nearly didn’t make it to Brazil. I didn’t know any of the others who were going, and met up with a couple of them for the first time at Heathrow. We had loads of time so went for a coffee and a chat. None of us was timekeeping but to our horror we suddenly noticed ‘Gate closing’ on the display for our flight! Our three names were called over the tannoy and a panic stricken dash up escalators, along corridors and onto a shuttle link ensued. Luckily they held the plane door open until we arrived. I was the last on and greeted by a tight lipped Steward: ‘You must be Mr Churchill’.
From such inauspicious beginnings the week blossomed into an amazing experience, packed full with projects visited, workshops run, friendships forged and Brazilian food sampled!
We were a group of nine Brits – each representing an organisation that uses the arts in its work within the homelessness sector. Theatre, opera, visual arts, photography and music were all represented and we were keen to find out what goes on in Brazil as well as share our own experience of what we’ve found works in the UK.
The many impressions I got of the country will take a while to process, but one overall thing that struck me was how strong a belief there is in the power of the arts in Brazilian culture. We started the week in Sao Paulo and the city, which dwarfs London (population 11.5 million, rough sleepers approx. 18,000), is like a permanent public art gallery. Every available wall and surface is covered in the most colourful and imaginative street art (with the full blessing of the city council)
Projects we visited also displayed great belief in the power of art and creativity as an essential part of life. For example we visited a community project based under a flyover – an area which is home to many rough sleepers. The community centre has made its own radio station, decorated its walls and has kitchen and shower areas. It also has a full programme of activities each week ranging from literacy classes to art and music sessions.
Another interesting project that used creative activities was one based in an area of Sao Paulo informally known as Cracolandia. This is an area of the city where crack addicts congregate and in which the forward looking city council has spearheaded a project where employees ride around on bicycles fully equipped for various activities and encourage the ‘people of the streets’ to get involved in producing something for the area. For example, one of the bicycles is equipped as a mobile gardening unit and gets groups of people together to plant vegetables and foliage in small areas of green in the city. Another bicycle produces a street newspaper with articles written by local people which is pasted on city walls in large type.
After the first couple of days we moved on to Rio de Janeiro, where much of my work was centred at the ‘Associação Solidários Amigos da Betânia’ – a hostel for 50 men who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Ricardo was my link there, a highly charismatic and wonderfully sunny person. He had been to England as part of the Brazilian delegation in April and was the guy who started up a choir based at the hostel. It was a privilege for me to lead a day of music making with this choir.
I was amazed by their enthusiasm and passion for music. These guys learn songs by heart really quickly – even songs in another language. By the end of the day they had five new songs with harmonies, percussion and clapping rhythms. Birmingham CWNN had recorded a video message for the Betânia choir and they returned the compliment by recording some footage of their singing which was sent back to Birmingham in time to be shown to our choir members at Thursday evening practice that week:
I was also asked to lead a seminar on another day at Betânia. This was about the benefits of singing, and was for invited representatives from organisations linked to homelessness. The idea was to inspire them to think about starting choirs within their own organisations. As part of this I showed them some interviews (translated into Portuguese) with CWNN choir members talking about how being in a choir had had a really positive effect on them. About thirty people came to the seminar, and they all got totally absorbed in the issue.
My intention was to ‘sell them’ the power of singing and how it could benefit the people they were working with. These people weren’t necessarily musicians or singers, but as part of the day’s programme I wanted to get them singing themselves so they could experience what it was like to be in a choir. They were totally up for it with no inhibitions whatsoever. I can’t help feeling that with a similar group of professionals in Britain, there would have been a lot more nervousness and fear of looking silly!
In fact I got the general impression that within Brazilian culture singing is a natural part of life. It’s not something that only ‘proper’ singers do – absolutely everyone sings (and dances!) with a naturalness and ease that is sometimes sadly lacking in our culture (though not of course in CWNN choirs!) When I was there I stressed the point to those who were thinking about it, that to set up a choir within that society would be in many respects easier than doing so in the UK. You would have a head start because it’s accepted that everyone loves to sing – you don’t have to win them over.
The week was drawing to a close and on the final working day the 9 of us from the UK took part in a day-long conference held at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio (see above!) The conference helped to give an overview of how the voice of street people (homeless isn’t a term they use in Brazil) is heard through the arts – both in Rio and in Britain. We all gave a short presentation about the UK organisations we represented. Maybe it’s time I introduced you to the others who I shared the week with:
On the final day we got a bit of time off to do some sight-seeing, and of course you couldn’t really go to Rio without going to visit the iconic ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue which looks over the city from a steep sided mountain. We also visited an inspiring theatre project working with poorer inhabitants of one of the many favelas that spill up the hillsides.
I’d spent a week on the other side of the world with a group of people from the UK I’d never met before, in a country I’d never been to before, experiencing a different way of life, sharing experiences from the UK and witnessing what a powerfully universal language music is. It’s been a real privilege for me and I hope the connection between the With One Voice UK consortium (of which CWNN is a part) and our sister organisations in Brazil continues for many years to come.
Read more about the With One Voice project HERE