“People have been rising up in protest for all time and done so for many reasons. And I believe music ties those units of resistance together,” Conductor John Ector said at the annual Mission College Chorus Winter Concert on March 14. The theme of this concert, “Winds of Change: Songs of Protest and Social Consciousness Throughout Time” lent itself to a cross-cultural, politically diverse, multi-generational collection of adaptations from a variety of artists.
The Choir began the night with what Ector quipped as a “hippie tune from long ago” called “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (“My Thoughts are Free”) a popular German protest song from the 16th century that showcased the solo abilities of bass singer Victor Wilburn. While parts of the song were sung in German, the chorus also stretched their language skills with “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” a hymn originally composed in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga. The song, translated as “Lord Bless Africa,” has served as a national anthem for five African nations (currently it is the anthem of Tanzania and a portion of South Africa’s national anthem) and traditionally sung in three languages–Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho.
Of course, there were plenty of English tunes as well, celebrating different struggles in Western history. Two of the songs–“The Internationale” and “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions”–were originally written by or arranged by Billy Bragg, the political activist and folksinger who often worked closely with Pete Seeger. Ector capitalized on this idea of collaboration and asked the audience to help sing two lines of the satirical chorus: “Tra la la la, Tra la la la, Tra la la la, Tra la la la / We’re making the world safe for capitalism.”
The final three songs of the night were ones specifically powerful for the Choir’s American audience. The “Words of Chief Seattle,” written by Ted Perry with music by Amy Stephen, focused on Native American rights and environmental efforts in the United States. Holly Near’s song “I am Willing,” that was arranged by Ector, felt “so necessary right now” for the Choir during this time of political uncertainty. Lastly, the Choir’s stirring rendition of the popular Gospel hymn, “We Shall Overcome” brought the audience to their feet in a standing ovation.
Ector encouraged the audience to participate in as many of the evening’s songs as possible, stating, “These are all songs of the people. You are people, we [in the Choir] are people, let’s sing together. We have a lot to sing about, especially today.”
Throughout the concert, the audience discovered, unfortunately, that the Choir might have been better served adding a blues tune to the repertoire–Ector revealed that the Choir is currently functioning without a budget. While the audience happily filled a donation tin, Ector is also hoping for help from the local community. (If writing a check to Mission College, please write “Mission Choir” in the memo line.) The community can also support the choir in two final Mission College performances this year–Sunday, April 23 at 3 p.m. with the school’s orchestra and Tuesday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m.