There are few things more satisfying, enlivening, connecting, grounding and uplifting than singing. This is even more true when singing in a group. Science has shown singing in a group lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins, lowers stress and even strengthens one’s immune system. And this is all in addition to the most basic benefit of singing in a group: it simply feels good!
We are blessed at East Shore Unitarian Church to have a vibrant community that cherishes music and places a high value on the importance of music in our weekly gatherings. We are also blessed to have such a wide range of musical talent in our midst, from vocal soloists to jazz pianists to professional violin and viola players to saxophonists, drummers, guitarists, ukulele players and more. It is my great joy to bring these musical elements together when crafting services with our ministry team: nothing makes me happier than serving up a nourishing musical meal with lots of sides.
The East Shore Mighty Choir is part of this musical smorgasbord. It is a choir made up of members with a wide range of experience. Some choir members have sung in choirs all their lives. For some, the ESUC Mighty Choir is the first choir they’ve ever experienced. My intent with the choir is to provide a space where everyone feels extravagantly welcome, and where we create joy, purpose and love by singing with one another. We bring this singing community to the congregation on the Sundays when we sing. If you’ve been in the Sanctuary when the Mighty Choir is singing, you have most likely seen, heard and felt the joy and connection we are feeling. If there is actual magic on earth, I believe it happens when a group sings together with love, joy and purpose. We are literally creating something larger than any single one of us can be.
I would like to invite anyone in East Shore – member or friend – to join the East Shore Mighty Choir. No previous experience is necessary. You don’t even need to read music! I create rehearsal tracks for each song we sing, and I make sure everyone feels comfortable with their parts. If you do read music, that’s great! But if you don’t – even if you’ve never looked at a sheet of music in your life – don’t let that stop you. Please come and make music with us!
Details: The ESUC Mighty Choir rehearses each Thursday evening from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m., and sing an average of two Sundays per months. The first rehearsal for the new church season will be Thursday, September 7. While I like to have as many choir members present each time we sing for a service, I also understand sometimes life intervenes.
If you want to drop by any Thursday evening and see if the choir may be for you, please do so! We are warm and welcoming, and we always have a good time during rehearsal.
2023 has already been such an adventurous year! This last Sunday the ESUC sanctuary rang with song and love as we installed our beloved Reverend María Cristina as our settled minister. Musical guests Emma’s Revolution sang, violinist Caitlin Kelley played, and the ESUC Mighty Choir rejoiced in Seasons of Love. Music truly feeds the soul and body, and last Sunday felt like such a spiritually nutritious meal.
We are having our Music Sunday service on May 21rst. This spring I would like to invite requests from the congregation (and guests) for favorite hymns. Please email me at [email protected] to suggest any number of your favorite hymns. We will include as many as possible!
Our Pride service this year will be on Sunday June 4th. I’m delighted to bring Arnaldo, the internationally celebrated Drag Chanteuse to the ESUC platform. Arnaldo has performed for past East Shore Live shows, and is thrilled to return for this Pride service, one that will focus a bit on what drag is, what drag means, why some people are so afraid of it and how it has transformed so many lives. At a time when so many states are passing ridiculously restrictive anti-drag bills, this will be a timely opportunity to celebrate this timeless art form. Arnaldo has offered to host a question-and-answer session after the service. The Mighty Choir will sing a new song I wrote, commissioned by several LGBT choruses, in addition to a few sprightly Pride-themed songs. With Reverend María Cristina joining the festivities, this will be a powerful, joyful and memorable Pride service!
I wanted to offer up gratitude for the many heartfelt notes and messages I received on the passing of my father in March. It all came upon us so quickly; I was very glad I was able to spend a week with him before he died, and then return a week later to conduct his memorial service. I feel his absence deeply, but am comforted knowing that our hearts were truly aligned in that last week we spent together. Thank you all again for your love and support.
I would like to extend three musical invitations to everyone:
If you have ever had an inkling that singing in a choir might be fun, please come join us! We rehearse Thursday evenings in the sanctuary from 7 to 8:30. The ESUC Mighty Choir sings two services per month; members are not required to sing at every service. The choir season goes from the beginning of September to mid June. Feel free to drop in any Thursday evening to see just how fun and connecting being part of a singing community is.
If you have a musical talent you would like to share with the congregation, please let me know. I love bringing innate talent and desire to perform to light!
There has been talk of forming a drum circle at East Shore for quite some time. I would be very much in favor of this, and I would need help in planning and running such. Have you been in a drum circle? Would you like to be part of one at East Shore? Please let me know!
I wanted to share a few things about some of the songs that you’ve heard during services over the past few weeks. When the ministry team plans and shapes Sunday services – guided by the marvelous Rev. María Cristina – we work to make sure everything fits as a whole. Finding music that fits the theme and is singable and/or memorable is a fun challenge. I love doing research, and I love finding new songs to love and share.
Gracias a la Vida: September 18
One of these songs is ‘Gracias a la Vida,’ which Mama Lily sang on September 18 for Rev. María Cristina’s birthday. This is a song that has a rich cultural history. It was written by Chilean singer/songwriter Violeta Parra. She was part of the movement and musical genre known as the ‘Nueva Cancíon Chilena,’ or ‘New Chilean Song.’ This movement was strongly political and social; the songs reflected a deep spirit of community and history as they were sung in protest to the political upheavals happening in the region. ‘Gracias a la Vida’ has been called a ‘humanist hymn,’ as it basically gives thanks to Life Itself for the innumerable wonders of the earth and the human family. When Mama Lily sang the song, she sang ‘Gracias mi hija,’ (Thank you, my daughter.) The song has meant a lot to both Rev. María Cristina and her mother throughout their lives.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
In looking for songs for the Blessing of the Animals service, I wanted something up-beat and fun for the postlude. The Lion Sleeps Tonight (or Wimoweh) came to mind. It was easy for the choir to learn, and we had a lot of fun closing the service out with it. But I made myself a promise that I would share the background of the song with all of you. It is a troubled history, and reflects a lot of what often happens when someone co-opts a piece of another culture’s heritage.
South African singer and songwriter Solomon Linda wrote and recorded Mbube in the ‘30s with his group The Evening Birds. The song was based on a traditional pattern of Zulu singing, with a call and response pattern. The word “Mbube” means “lion” in Zulu, and the original song was intended as a plea for lions to leave sheep alone during the night. The Evening Birds’ recording became a hit in South Africa throughout the 1940s. The song’s title gave the name to the style of African a cappella music called mbube, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo bringing the style to worldwide focus in the 1980s.
In 1949 music ethnologist and historian Alan Lomax brought a copy of Mbube to his friend Pete Seeger. Seeger and his group The Weavers, made a recording of an adaptation of the song in 1951 called Wimoweh. (This was a mishearing of the word “Uyimbube” which means “you are a lion” in Zulu, which was repeated in the chorus of the original.) The Weavers credited the song as “Traditional.” It reached the Billboard top ten, and several others began to record the song as well, including The Kingston Trio and Yma Sumac. None of these singers gave Solomon Linda credit for having written the original. It has been reported that The Weavers thought they were singing and recording a traditional African folksong. It is true that the song we know of as The Lion Sleeps Tonight is rather different from the original Mbube, eventually including the words most of us associate with the song: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” At the same time it is clear the Zulu song was the inspiration for the Americanized version. In 1961, The Tokens recorded The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The song rocketed to the #1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100. Pete Seeger was contacted by Solomon Linda’s record company and Seeger sent $1,000 to Linda, and instructed his and the Weavers’ publishing company to pay a fair share of the royalties to Linda henceforth. This didn’t happen and Solomon Linda died destitute in 1962 as white American publishing and recording companies were reaping millions from the song.
In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine in which he recounted Linda’s story and estimated that the song had earned $15 million for its use in the Disney movie The Lion King alone. This piece prompted filmmaker François Verster to create the Emmy-winning documentary A Lion’s Trail, that told Linda’s story while incidentally exposing the workings of the multi-million dollar music industry.
In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by Malan’s article and the subsequent documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Linda’s estate and Disney, claiming that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of The Lion Sleeps Tonight in the film and musical stage productions of The Lion King. In February 2006, Linda’s descendants reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music Publishers, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney, to place the earnings of the song in the Solomon Linda Trust, 45% of which will go to Linda’s descendants.
In 2012, Mbube fell into the public domain, owing to the copyright laws of South Africa. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, however, still remains in copyright.
This tale is sad and infuriating enough on its own. But it is one that has been repeated time and time again in the history of popular music in the USA. Music written and originally performed by People of Color has been routinely repackaged by white singers who made small fortunes off of the material. The original artists were rarely compensated, or led to signing ridiculously unfair contracts to gain copyright ownership of their original songs. Being a writer/composer/publisher myself (as well as a person of conscience) I always want to make sure credit is given where credit is due. As much as possible, I strive to lift up historically under-represented voices in music. And, whenever possible, I strive to make sure appropriate compensation is given.
Raghupati: October 23
There is one more bit of musical background I’d like to give. This is for a song from our Diwali service. The song ‘Raghupati’ is in the gray hymnbook, and is credited as a ‘traditional Hindu hymn.’ This much is true, as the precise origins of the song are not entirely clear. It was either written by the Hindu saint and poet Tulsidas during his life in the 17th century or by the Marathi saint-poet Ramdas (not to be confused with the 20th century writer and spiritual teacher Ram Dass.) The tune was set by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar to the raga gara in the early 1900s. The song known as ‘Raghuputi’ has undergone several transformations as a Hindu devotional hymn, but the most well-known version is that adapted by Mahatma Gandhi. His version is an ecumenical one, stating that the Ishvara (Supreme Being) of Hindu and the Allah of Islam were one. ‘Raghaputi’ was used by Gandhi and his many followers to spread the message of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. It was also sung during the 1930 Salt March, an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Gandhi. The words appear in our hymnal as a transliteration of the Hindi version of the prayer. The translation says:
O Lord Rama, descendant of Raghu, Uplifter of the fallen
You and your beloved consort Sita are to be worshiped.
All names of God refer to the same Supreme Being
Including Ishvara and the Muslim Allah.
O Lord, please give peace and fellowship to everyone, as we are your children.
We all request that this eternal wisdom of humankind prevails.
My friend Swapnesh Dubey, who did the service this year, also provided a talk on Diwali two years ago via video, one that urged more equity between men and women in India. As a result of this take Swapnesh received several threats from nationalistic Hindus who saw his presentation as being anti-Hindu and (to them) anti-India. (This is why the video was removed from East Shore’s YouTube site.) When I spoke with Swapnesh about music for this year’s Diwali service he enthusiastically agreed that ‘Raghuputi’ would be a fitting song, as it mentions Sita and Rama, the two central figures in the story of Diwali. I researched several versions of the song (including one by Pete Seeger!) and found quite a large variety of styles and takes. One on site I found a recording that was put forth as the ‘original and authentic’ version of the song, decrying Gandhi’s ‘bastardized’ version as being against Hinduism. It seems nationalism and fundamentalism often go hand in hand and can happen in any country or nationality that claims a certain religion to be the One Whole Truth. We’ve certainly seen a lot of that here in the United States, with many people claiming our country is a ‘Christian nation’ and that it was the founding fathers’ intention to stake that claim. I prefer the gentle, compassionate way of radical inclusion. Lines that are drawn to demarcate ‘us’ and ‘them’ seem always to be drawn with fear or anger, and often with violence as a result. I hope everyone enjoys our version of ‘Raghuputi,’ the version championed by Mahatma Gandhi, one of the great souls of the modern age.
On a final note: Nicole and I are working on a website feature that will allow me to share more such background stories of music presented at East Shore, as well as informational tidbits and an occasional musical anecdote. More as this story (and website feature) develops!
I spent five days in Ann Arbor in mid-July for the annual Association of Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries (AUUMM) conference. I attended my first such conference four years ago in Portland, and learned quite a lot about the role and purpose in music, not only in services but as a unifying force for social justice, spiritual connection and enlightenment. This recent conference – the first held since the pandemic – was inspiring in a different way. Every music director there had stories of how their congregation had pulled together or fallen apart during the pandemic. Most stories were a combination of both; the fallout of not being able to meet in person hit churches particularly hard. Most music directors and ministers I spoke with had been relatively successful in presenting online services, and most are currently doing a cross-platform presentation, much like we are at East Shore.
It was nice – and a little surprising – to hear how many people were aware of East Shore, had seen our services online, and were enthusiastic in their praise about how well we had done in our virtual services. I was also pleased to hear so many churches had utilized videos I’d created – with my permission of course – and how well received they had been.
Over the course of the five days, we had numerous services where music played a key role. Being in the congregation while music ministers Glenn Thomas Rideout and Francisco Ruiz led us in singing was such a privilege, and such a nourishing experience. Being in the middle of the expansive, light-filled beautiful space of First Unitarian of Ann Arbor and feeling the warm, surging energy of the congregation singing all around me was pure joy on emotional, spiritual, and physical levels. I have come back to East Shore reignited, reaffirmed, and with a new appreciation for the kind of work we do, and how my role as music director fits into it. I’ve heard it said that music is the divine made audible. This has been my experience time and time again.
Working with Rev. María Cristina
It was also thrilling to hear so many people say, “You are so lucky to have Rev. María Cristina as your settled minister – she is so wonderful.” Everyone I spoke with who had worked with her or had experienced her ministry bubbled over with joyful praise. And I responded back that my experiences working with her so far have been filled with an exhilarating delight, underlined with a sense of a deep desire for justice, peace and love. I am grateful to be here at East Shore at this incredibly thrilling juncture.
Before I say any more I would like to gratefully acknowledge how profoundly moved and inspired I was when the membership came together in support of the music and other programs that looked to be in jeopardy with some of the earlier budgets proposed. The encouragement I felt, the love and strength meant more to me than any words or any music can convey. I deeply love and appreciate the members, staff and Board at East Shore, and it is my commitment to continue to lift up, strengthen, connect and inspire all of us with music that matters. I have a deep desire to elevate music within our community as much as possible. So to that end:
Choir Returns September 1
The East Shore Mighty Choir is resuming in-person rehearsals on Thursday, September 1, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm in the Sanctuary. There is no audition required to join the choir. Reading music is not necessary – although it’s always a useful skill to have. Previous choral experience is also not necessary. My intent is to have a choir by the people, for the people. I want the choir to be very much about us as a living community, not a rarified group of privileged performers who sing at the congregation. So please – if you have ever had any desire to sing, or have ever looked up at the choir during a service and thought, “that looks like so much fun!” then come to a rehearsal any Thursday and see what we’re all about. It’s also not necessary to feel you need to commit to singing every Sunday the choir sings – everyone understands that life often intervenes, and some members will necessarily need to miss some Sundays.
Do You Play a Musical Instrument?
In a similar vein, I’m very interested in hearing from any members who would enjoy playing an instrument during a service. This doesn’t need to be a solo (like the excellent Cailin Kelley who played three marvelous violin solos this August) With our last Music Sunday on May 15, I incorporated the freshly-formed East Shore All Stars who played several jazzy tunes of their own as well as accompanied the choir on several pieces (I had wanted to do Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” for the longest time). There are plenty of opportunities for any who would want to add a flute as a background line, or a guitar/ukulele or hand drums. I will write out these accompanying lines for you and rehearse with you so you feel comfortable with what you would be playing. And speaking of hand drums …
Several members in the past had asked if we could form a drum circle. We are now ready to begin doing so. This would be a group that would meet once or twice a month, and would play in services when desired and appropriate. We have a small number of hand drums at the church – two congas, a set of bongos and other hand-held rhythm instruments. In order for the drum circle to be successful we’d need more drums. So if you’ve got a djembe at home or an Irish tambor or the like that you’ve been wanting to play – send me a message!
Make A Request
One more invitation I would like to extend is: I would love to hear what songs folks would like to hear in services. These can be hymns from either hymnbook, a popular song, a forgotten standard, a show tune, a song your father wrote – I’m open to all. That said, I can’t guarantee that every request will find its way into a service. But I will say that many songs I’ve presented at East Shore – whether on my own, or with the choir or any number of our fantastic soloists – have been suggested by members. I’m always on the lookout for new, interesting, appealing, meaningful songs to bring to our Sunday celebrations.
One thing I love about this time of year is that some trees are already beginning to bud. Today, I saw purple crocuses in full bloom in my front yard, and my winter daphne has bloomed, filling the air with an intoxicatingly sweet perfume. The plants and the earth know new life is coming, even if some of us are still stuck in what seems like an eternal gray haze.
As this wave of the omicron variant starts to recede, I am daring once again to hope it may be possible for us to gather together in person before too long.
Tonight, the ESUC Mighty Choir held a masked-and-distanced in-person rehearsal for the first time since before Christmas. There is nothing I know that can match the soul-satisfying joy of singing together in a group, especially if one has been deprived of this for any length of time. While I am grateful that Zoom has allowed us to connect in important and life-affirming ways, it is an unsatisfying medium through which to share music. I left the rehearsal feeling a deep sense of connection I know now I need on a regular basis. I am (yet again) eagerly anticipating the time when we can raise our voices together as a congregation in our beautiful sanctuary. What a joyful noise indeed that will be.
In the summer of 2018, I went to Portland to attend a five-day conference of UU Directors of Music. It was an exceedingly rich time, full of singing, talking, listening, learning, planning, playing, and singing – always singing. This is where I met the wonderful Melanie DeMore – she led an afternoon workshop with all the gathered music directors and transformed us into a singing, dancing, feeling, laughing, living, breathing being. In 2020 and 2021 the conference was not able to be held due to COVID. This July, however, the conference is being planned for five days in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am *so* signed up for this. I look forward to hearing how my fellow UU musicians have fared over these past two challenging years, and what opportunities, griefs and insights have come forth. I look forward to bringing what I learn and experience back to ESUC. (I also look forward to having numerous lunches at Zingerman’s delicatessen in Ann Arbor. This was the go-to place to enjoy delectable comestibles while I was at school at the University of Michigan.)
Many of us who attended General Assembly in Spokane in 2019 were struck by the song ‘We Shall Be Known’ by the duo MaMuse. This song has sustained me during several dark periods over this last year. There is something both joyful and solemn about the song, and seems to call upon a strength that is greater than any one of us alone. Here are the words to ‘We Shall Be Known,’ by Karisha Longaker of MaMuse:
We shall be known by the company we keep
By the ones who circle round to tend these fires
We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap
The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
Here is a YouTube video of the duo singing the song
Thank you all for being part of such a wonderful collection of human beings. I embrace you all with love, and with music.
For the past ten years or so I’ve been part of Seattle’s Bushwich Book Club, which is a collection of composers, performers and writers. Several times a year the Bushwick book Club chooses a few books and send them out to the writing/performing team to see what inspires them. In the past I’ve written songs for presentations on Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ Stephen King’s ‘The Shining,’ Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and others. This particular show was called ‘Ink Aloud’ – three authors were presenting their own work live with the performers onstage. I really enjoyed creating the song which wove three different verses from The Kural together.
This conversation between Thomas and myself was conducted over Zoom a few days after the Bushwick Book Club event. He was very engaging to speak with. Quite a warm, wise, compassionate fellow. Watch it here.