Leeds composers are celebrating their community with a new song for West Yorkshire, inspired by the county and the people who live here.
Looking Out, Reaching Out premieres at www.asongforus.org at 12.30pm on Wednesday 2 February 2022. Commissioned by Opera North, West Yorkshire-based composers Boff Whalley (Chumbawamba) and Thanda Gumede have written the song as part of Sound UK’s nationwide project A Song for Us. It is one of 14 County Songs written in light of the difficulties emerging for us all in the past couple of years.
The song will be recorded in front of a live audience at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds over the coming weeks. The two composers will be joined by local ensembles The Commoners Choir – the “peculiar, feisty, celebratory, witty, angry and inclusive” collective founded in Leeds by Boff – and the cross-community Harmony choir from Burmantofts.
Boff explained how the song was developed: “We asked people some simple questions about their connections to West Yorkshire and what that means to them. We asked them how they think West Yorkshire connects to the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world comes into this county to influence it. We wanted a song that wasn’t just inward-looking, but that reached out to the world, a song that was inclusive and welcoming, that put West Yorkshire into a context of the planet and its people.”
Boff moved to Leeds from Burnley to study at the University in 1981, formed anarcho-punks Chumbawamba the following year, and has since spent most of his life in the City. After 25 years of recording and touring with the band, he embarked on a career as a writer of plays, large-scale community musicals, and books about another of his passions: fell-running around Leeds and beyond.
His co-writer, singer, composer and educator Thanda is originally from Durban, the city in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and revealed a tie with West Yorkshire: “My best friend’s grandfather is Obed Mlaba, the former Mayor of Durban, who was behind the twinning of Durban and Leeds in 1999. Boff and I were in agreement that we wanted our song to dig deep. As a migrant worker I personally felt reticent about speaking for the natives of God’s Own Country. So reaching out to the people of West Yorkshire to ask them what West Yorkshire means to them felt like a fitting route to take.
Lockdown made us feel separated from the whole world, but music kept me sane and gave me purpose: through it, I was able to connect with so many people around the world. So many were suffering, but singing remotely with my choir in Otley helped me to connect with senior citizens who may have been neglected. I would stream performances globally with amazing organisations across the U.K to raise money towards Covid relief, and perform phone ‘concerts’ with those who couldn’t access Zoom.”
Alongside A Song for West Yorkshire, Sound UK has commissioned 14 other County Songs for A Song for Us, from artists including Gavin Bryars (the East Riding), This Is The Kit and Bucky (Bristol) and Gwenno (Cornwall). The tracks form part of a growing music map of the country to mark the time of the pandemic.
Anyone can share songs that have had special meaning for them during the pandemic. So far over 650 people from all over Britain and as far as Nigeria have shared their meaningful songs, including original music, from teenagers to the elderly, on topics such as dreams of hugs to thank yous for help given.
Maija Handover, Director, Sound UK:
“A Song for Us celebrates our communities during the COVID 19 pandemic and beyond. It seeks to encapsulate the coming together and solidarity. It recognises the nationwide losses we have experienced, whether at a distance or personally. Above all it celebrates the power of music to bring us together, whether as creators, performers or listeners.”
Jo Nockels, Projects Director, Opera North:
“We are delighted to be working on this commission with Thanda Gumede, whose blend of Zulu, jazz and gospel influences make him such a unique composer. Having met him three years ago through our Resonance artist support residencies, it has been great to introduce him to Boff, whose work in Leeds communities has become legendary. Together they have created a song that is powerfully outward–looking and richly local at the same time.
Our co-commission for A Song For Us is the latest of Opera North Projects’ initiatives during the pandemic, which have included a series of Lockdown Resonance residencies in support of music-makers; a set of downloadable sound walks for BBC Sounds; and an in-person headphone walk around Leeds commissioned from the cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe. For A Song for West Yorkshire, we’re excited to be working with Thanda, Boff and members of the wider community to reflect on this extraordinary period.”
Visit asongforus.org. To see the premiere of A Song for West Yorkshire: Looking Out, Reaching Out , head to the website at 12.30pm on Wednesday 2 February 2022. The song will be available to watch for 12 months after its release.
Feature photograph: Boff Whalley. Image by Casey Orr.