Vocal protesters who harness music and passion to get their message across
The choir that believes a revolution without singing isn’t worth having
“It’s difficult to be depressed if you’re singing”: The Resistance Choir practises above St Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons.
On Tuesday evening 12 people gathered with a guitar, a bass and a cajón box drum at the top of Grafton Street in Dublin, unfurled a stencilled banner declaring themselves The Resistance Choir and started to protest against the budget in song.
It’s not their first performance. They’ve sung on trailers at demonstrations and protests and have been involved with campaigns such as the one against the household tax.
They have flash-mobbed Heuston Station (it’s on YouTube), the Revenue Commissioners and shopping centres.
At the Revenue Commissioners, they all got up one by one and sang a verse of a song. “There were no instruments because that would have been obvious,” says guitarist and co-founder Paul O’Boyle.
On some occasions people take exception to their melodically charged views. At a shopping centre, for example, they were descended upon by security guards. “They stopped me playing,” says O’Boyle. “They targeted the men. They grabbed all the cameras and poor Bobby Ballagh [the acclaimed artist] who was holding our cue cards ended up on the floor. It was like we were invading the Kremlin.”
“But they didn’t touch the women, so we kept singing,” says Helena McNeill.
“In the future we could just send the women,” suggests Sean Fitzgerald.
The Resistance Choir practises every Wednesday night in the offices above St Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto. Their meetings usually begin with a postmortem of previous performances. “It was really hard to hear the vocals,” says O’Boyle, referring to their budget day protest the previous evening. His choir colleagues agree. “It’s difficult when we’re outside. Unless we’re amplified you need at least 30 of us.”
Everyone sits around a long table in the practice room. O’Boyle occasionally strums a chord on his guitar. The group is “lefty” but not aligned to any specific group and they stress that they respect different views. Some haven’t been hugely politically active in the past, while others, like co-founder Tina McVeigh and McNeill, are members of groups such as People Before Profit.
O’Boyle is political but non-aligned. “I’ve problems with all the parties,” he says. “But I’ve been involved in protests going back to the anti-nuclear stuff [at Carnsore Point], where music played a very big part.” His day job is teaching banks around the world how to use their IT systems.
They get ready to sing. They gather in front of the banner. There’s a cut-out of a woman in the corner of the room. “We’re using her to boost our numbers,” says Clara Purcell, one of the youngest members, who heard about the choir via a friend of her father. There’s a sign saying ‘Stop the cuts!’ There’s a bass drum lying against some shelves which O’Boyle suggests I keep time with (I try).
They start with Now is the Time For Rage, a song O’Boyle wrote and which the choir released as a single in support of the campaign against the household tax.
“But we did it at the nadir of that campaign,” he says with a sigh.
The singers perform actions as they rail harmoniously against the political class. “Can’t pay Mr Government man . . . Can’t Pay Mr Troika man,” they sing.
Their repertoire is eclectic. Some of the songs are originals. Others are rewritten, politicised versions of popular songs. They perform a pro-choice rewrite of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, featuring a spoken bit read by Mahon. They also have an adaptation of the Pogues song Fiesta, renamed Fiasco, featuring verses about our political leaders and fracking. “It’s not finished yet,” says Mahon.
They do a version of Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables, into which they’ve inserted a verse translated into Irish.
“We saw a video of protesters in Gezi Park [in Istanbul] singing it,” says Mahon.
“I might struggle on the Irish verse,” says Fitzgerald, who’s from England.
“You’ll be grand,” says McNeill.
I sing along. I can’t help it. “Music is cathartic and suits the soul better than shouting out a slogan,” says O’Boyle
“It’s a very powerful thing,” says McNeill. “It helps carry people forward. It brings a sense of hope and joy and a sense that things can be better, a sense of the possible.”
Mahon joined after a chat with McNeill at a singing class because, she says, she’s a sucker for anything involving flashmobs. “But I care about social justice,” she says. “I enjoy music and it’s my little way of contributing – telling the powers-that-be they’re doing a very bad job from my point of view and from the man on the street’s point of view.”
Fitzgerald, who managed the Irish verse just fine, has never been part of anything like this before. “It instils a bit of optimism,” he says.
“It’s difficult to be depressed if you’re singing. We can make the mistake on the left of being too negative because there are a lot of terrible things happening and people are suffering. But having artistic and cultural and expressive musical things going on alongside protest is a wonderful thing. It lifts people’s spirits.”
The Resistance Choir is always happy to see new members – you can contact them via their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/361593077261962.