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Yarl's Wood Singing Group

Yarl's Wood Singing Group

10 Weeks on the Inside

During my career as a musician, actress and radio presenter I have been privileged to work with some amazingly talented artists. I have always been willing to try anything and relish new experiences. When I was approached to run a ten-week choir course at Yarl’s Wood IRC my immediate reaction was “Yes, I’d love to!” I had fantastic images of creating an intercultural choir singing in three-part harmonies. This, I’m pleased to say, was the result, but the journey wasn’t strewn with roses.

By the third week, after a slow start, a group of regular participants had formed. My original aim was to encourage the detainees to exchange folk songs from their countries of origin, but it soon became apparent that very few knew any. Instead, the women suggested songs they wanted to sing and I taught them how to improve their singing voices using tone, breath and mouth positioning.

Working in such a setting comes with many challenges; rather than letting these frustrate me, I had to embrace and adapt to them. In detention, last-minute appointments are a frequent occurrence, and as a result there was no guarantee that choir members would arrive to rehearsals on time. The language barrier also presented difficulties; for participants who spoke little English, even warm-up exercises could be time-consuming as the sounds we were producing weren’t necessarily used in their mother tongue.

Choir members came from all over the world – Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, China, and so on – so I encouraged the group to explore a variety of styles and genres of music. We would often deviate from the lesson plan to talk about their favourite artists or songs. One participant in particular would ask me to explain what the symbols on a sheet of music meant, and we could spend half an hour on a theory lesson that wasn’t even planned! We all adopted a flexible approach to get the most out of the sessions.

Singing is a cathartic activity and has many health and healing properties. In a place like Yarl’s Wood, making music is more necessary than ever to help detainees cope with the insecurity and stress of detention. Having a regular session timetabled in provides them with something routine but fun to look forward to. I was reminded of this after a morning singing workshop was unexpectedly cancelled. When I returned in the afternoon, four women came up to me and said “We need you on a Wednesday morning. It’s what we do! Don’t let them cancel it again!”

At the end of the ten weeks the choir was invited to perform at an event the centre organised as part of Refugee Week. For some, this was their first time singing in front of an audience. They certainly rose to the occasion, relishing the opportunity to share their songs with the other detainees and staff. We also had a quick recording session at the end of the course, and the participants enjoyed the experience of using the equipment. I am proud to say we ended on a high!

Listen to the results below...

117 plays

Grateful

A cappella

The group produced this song, 'Grateful', after a session we did on harmonies. It is a song of worship - they wanted to be able to sing it in church.

109 plays

Long Time Girl

A cappella

This song, 'Long Time Girl', is a Jamaican folk song. One of the choir members brought it to a session and I helped them arrange and sing it together. It is about a man who meets the old love of his life again after quite some time, and wants to woo her again.

235 plays

Stay

Pop

This is a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’, from the album ‘Unapologetic’. It was originally written by Mikky Ekko and sung as a duet between them. One of the choir members suggested the group sing it, and I found the backing track and lyrics.

Jo Hudson-Lett