14 Dec Four brave women
Brave. Exuberant. Those were the words that came to mind as I watched four women immersed in the songs of acappella, holding their notes in complex harmony. Each voice strong, almost fierce, then suddenly tender. They sang in different languages – Bulgarian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Hebrew – true to the origins of each song. The words, the notes, the spirit of the songs all learned, practised, practised and practised again. And finally performed to a sell-out crowd at the Kino Theatre in St Leonards.
That was where we were late last Sunday morning and the experience has stayed with me. One of the four women is a precious friend. I’d heard her sing before with this quartet, the Acappella Bellas, and with other bigger groups and choirs. She sings a lot. But I’d never had the full acappella concert experience. So, this was new to me. And I didn’t know what to expect.
The harmonies of acappella are demanding. I’ve never tried it, though I have sung in choirs. But you can tell just from listening how tough it is. There’s nowhere to hide, no instruments to shield the voice, to compensate should you waver, lose your place, forget your words, breathe at the wrong moment.
The sound of human voices singing unaccompanied has a quality of magic and goose-bumps. Bare and earthy but spiritual and other-worldly at the same time – though I know those descriptions seem contradictory. The voices are out there on their own and yet not solo. They work alone and together, reaching for their own notes, then making way for one another. Such trusting interdependence.
They stood on stage, those four brave women, in their peasant clothes – black dress, embroidered apron, headscarf or headdress of colourful pompoms and streaming ribbons. They sang of the season, of whispering angels and new-born babies, of knitting and loss. They sang prayers and dances. They sang of family, of sons and daughters, of sacrifice and joy. Though we didn’t understand the words, a short introduction to each song gave us the story. The music of their voices did the rest.
I’m trying to work out why it’s stayed with me. Performances often don’t. You see a show or a concert, enjoy it in the moment, rave about it to your friends, then quickly forget it. I’m sure it’s partly that I felt more involved because I know one of the performers. I knew how nervous she was, how much it mattered to her that she did her bit, let no-one down, that it went well. And it did go well. Performing makes it real, gives it an edge. They sang their songs and the audience could tell they were hearing something special.
But it has stayed with me not just because of the intimacy of this kind of voice music, or because of knowing one of the singers. What opened my eyes wide and took my breath away was the sheer work, the dedication, the courage and conviction to perform in front of such a crowd. There was so much to learn and absorb, to understand and convey – the music, the words, the sentiments. I found myself thinking: “What an astonishing thing to do”.