Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Voices lifted in Unison

When Canada's queer choirs unite

BUILDING COMMUNITY THROUGH SONG: 'There is a profound emotional connection to this stuff. The voice is the single most intimate expression you have, voices are extremely revealing.' Credit: Xtra West files

Canada, as a country, is somewhat of an enigma. A vast land of diverse peoples sharing a sometimes ill-defined set of values and traditions, we’re hard to pin down, tough to explain, and often over-shadowed by our bigger (and often menacing) cousin south of the border. But we’re different and we know it.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that something special happens when Canada’s queer choirs get together on one stage at a made-in-Canada event, says Kim Vance.

Vance is a member of the Halifax a capella group The Women Next Door, which is coming to Vancouver next week to take part in this city’s first pan-Canadian queer choir festival in four years, Unison 2006.

“We can’t wait for the Canadian festivals. There’s such a different feel when all the Canadian choirs sing together,” says Vance. “Our reality as Canadians, our political landscape, has been a lot better, generally, than in the US,” so our choral festivals tend to have more of a celebratory vibe than their American or European counterparts.

Artistic director Willi Zwozdesky, who has been at the helm of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus for almost 25 years, is a key organizer of this year’s festival. With much help from our local queer choirs, he has fashioned an event which he calls “its own unique empire”-one where you will hear material from songwriters like Susan Crowe, Connie Kaldor and other, relatively obscure Canadian artists that would draw blank looks from an audience in New York. Here, on Canadian turf, they are welcomed as “our people, our voices.”

“It builds spirit here at home” and it’s good for the groups who visit from other parts of Canada, Zwozdesky says. “There is a profound emotional connection to this stuff. The voice is the single most intimate expression you have, voices are extremely revealing. You can’t help but be touched. It’s completely normal for people to weep openly-for the joy to be so extreme that people will say their lives will have changed.”

Since US choirs tend to dominate the North American gay choir movement, homegrown festivals are becoming ever more crucial in forging our own Canadian queer identity, Zwozdesky continues. “Faggotry has been legal here for quite some time” so we’re at a different stage of our journey than our American brothers and sisters.

Vance refers to what she calls the “US-centricism” of other festivals she has been to. “It’s a hard thing to explain but it’s there and we lament it all the time,” she laughs. Even at the International GALA festival held in Montreal in 2004, you would never have known you were in Canada until you stepped out into the streets, she says. Inside, it felt like an American festival. Even the merchandise was priced in US dollars.

Canadian choirs tend to be more evenly spilt between men and women, while US groups are around 80 percent male, Zwozdesky notes, so at a Canuck festival “just walking into the room, it’s a completely different experience” because women have such a big presence.

The Women Next Door will be singing one of Vance’s own compositions called We Were All Just Loving Women, which is based on her work as a queer human rights activist.

“I’m married [to a same-sex partner], have two adopted children, live in rural Nova Scotia quite openly. It’s a pretty darn good life,” she says. In the song, Vance contrasts this with what she calls a “desperate situation around the world” where queer people fear detention, torture and death because of who they are.

For his part, Zwozdesky has worked tirelessly to plan a festival for about two dozen groups and over 500 delegates which will also feature lighter material like his own group’s Madonna medley.

He has also selected material to be performed by “festival ensembles”-groups thrown together by combining members of different groups who will rehearse for a couple of hours, sing their numbers and then cease to exist. It’s music making on the fly, which can lead to some exciting results, Zwozdesky says.

He still remembers the time at the Edmonton Festival in 1998 when one such impromptu sing-out featuring guests David Sereda and Heather Bishop felt “like a folk rally” from the activist 60s. Moments like that have a tangible, rejuvenating effect on the participants who carry the high spirits with them when they return home.

Coming clear across the country can be a challenge for some choirs, though Vance is quick to point out that the Vancouver organizers have done a lot to make it easier, including setting up cheap accommodation at the University of British Columbia residences. In addition to Vance’s group, our local choirs will host the Calgary Men’s Chorus, Cardea Chorus, Tone Cluster, the Toronto Men’s Chorus, Edmonton Vocal Minority and many, many others.

Michel Guimond, artistic director of the Rainy City Gay Men’s Chorus, is looking forward to the opening night ceremonies. His group has been asked to welcome the delegation from Quebec, which it plans to do with a rousing version of Gilles Vigneault’s Mon Pays. Unison will be his first time leading Rainy City at such a large gathering and what he gets from attending the festival is simple: “It’s great to join a group of people who love what you love!”

This will also be Vancouver Lesbian and Gay Choir director Nicola Hamilton’s first time leading her charges at a Canadian festival. She sees Unison as an eye-opener for some of the people from smaller towns that “don’t necessarily have that many [queer] groups in their areas.

“So it’s a really exciting chance for all of us to meet and know there are other people out there” who share a love of vocal music and are outside the mainstream. It builds community, she says.

Building community and sharing through music is a huge reason why David McIntyre and Saskatchewan’s Prairie Pride Chorus are coming to town.

“When I first came on with the chorus, it was the year after they’d been to Edmonton and, boy, were they excited,” he tells me by phone from Regina.

McIntyre says that trip gave the group a shot in the arm, helped them to carry on and brought focus to their mission which is to foster tolerance through their music.

The Prairie Pride Chorus will perform excerpts from its Watershed Stories at Unison, then stay on after the festival wraps to perform the piece in its entirety at the Christ Church Cathedral.

McIntyre describes Watershed Stories as a very personal piece about the lifelong process of coming out and how it affects people at different stages in their life. Beginning in 1999, he started interviewing Prairie Pride Chorus members and, together with his own experiences, crafted two sets of eight songs each, covering topics like bullying, gay teen suicide, and the challenges of growing up queer in small town Canada. The choir premiered the first set at Government House in Regina in 2002; the second set was completed in 2004.

Since then, Watershed Stories has been performed at schools, churches, and concert halls in the very areas that most need to hear queer stories: small rural towns like Belgoni and Weyburn, Saskatchewan and all across Alberta. McIntyre says he’s extremely pleased with the response so far.

“It certainly goes directly to people’s hearts and I don’t know how someone can hear those songs and come away with a judgmental attitude. They have to begin to think differently, anyway. Which has always been part of our goal,” he says.

The Chan Centre will be teeming with Unison queers throughout the Victoria Day long weekend; Watershed Stories will get its turn in its entirety May 22.