Early on Wednesday morning Pippa pulls over to pick me up and I load my little harp, a bag of hand chimes and some tiny bells into the boot of her car. We are on our way to visit a vibrant group of parents and toddlers we are meeting today as part of the When A Child Is A Witness project, inviting local refugees to perform together alongside top UK choir Ex Cathedra in a multi-dimensional event at Coventry Cathedral. Over the last few weeks Pippa, one of the vocal tutors at Ex Cathedra has been supporting the Let’s Play group to sing together and to create their own song to sing with their bouncing, bubbly toddlers and babes in arms.
When we arrive the sun is out and a couple of mums are already arriving, pushing buggies – chatting, smiling, and they give us a wave. The ‘Let’s Play’ group is run by Alysia through Carriers of Hope, a charity supporting local refugees, asylum seekers and migrant families. As a city of sanctuary, Coventry has a whole range of support agencies and this is just one of the wonderful charities I have been working with in the run up to our shared performance at the end of February #whenachildisawitness
I will carry you to your future, to be a better person
I first visited the group last Autumn and met Anita, one of the mums who’s energy and warmth glowed, even on a cold November morning. That day Anita taught us a beautiful lullaby ‘Tutu gbovi’ – a song she had learnt from her own mum back in Ghana. As she sang, one of the other mums and her toddler joined in quietly. Since then, Pippa has used the harmonies of this gentle melody to provide a framework for the new song the mums are creating for our project.
Pippa has built up a great rapport with the group. Singing has always been a central part of the sessions with Alysia who tells me: ‘It is a helpful means of learning English for both children and mums. It is also important for encouraging fun interactions and engagement between parents and children. So we use it as a vehicle for bonding and for learning.’ The parents and children have got used to sitting together in a circle, leaving the other toys and coming to sing, play and dance together. Pippa starts with a familiar song that includes each child’s name. Anita or one of the other mums might start singing another song and everyone joins in. There’s a lot of laughing, moving, clapping together and a real sense of connection, even with the shyer mums who may be still acclimatising to their new environment in the UK.
Pippa sings their new song, a lively chorus with lots of opportunities to clap, stamp, tap, dance and spin. The whole room is jumping together! I’m joining in with my harp and the children and mums all have shakers, scrapers and woodblocks. A couple of mums and a dad are just watching in the background, making little videos of everyone having fun.
Once all the group are relaxed and happy, Pippa suggests that we continue creating a verse section for the new song. Last week the group had already suggested using the words ‘I will carry you’ – inspired by the charity’s name Carriers of Hope. Several ideas for lyrics had emerged: ‘I will carry you to the park, …to school, …to the beach’.
At the end of that session, while the other families were enjoying their tea, cake and yoghurts, one of the younger mums came up to Pippa. She touched her arm and said softly, ‘I will carry you to your future, to be a better person’.
While I play the chords from the Tutu gbovi lullaby Pippa and Alysia encourage everyone, saying: ‘the words are “we will carry you…” – what is the melody?’ After a few repeats of the chords, everyone is rolling the words around, trying different ideas, or not sure what to do, watching the others. Within minutes, Anita starts to sing a beautiful rising melody, and says, ‘oh, no it’s too slow!’ I say – ‘no, it’s ok, it’s good!’ I knew this more lyrical melody would be the perfect contrast to the lively chorus they had already composed.
We ask Anita to repeat the melody as we all join in with her, getting used to it. Now Pippa invites the group to finish off the line ‘- where will we carry you to?’ One of the mums says ‘to the park! – and Anita finishes off her melody, singing ‘to the park’, how to end the line? Someone says – ‘to have some fun!’
Pippa and Alysia invite further ideas, inspired by the quiet mum the week before, about carrying the children into their future. What are their aspirations for all these bright bundles? New ideas emerge about being successful at work, getting a good job.
As we are trying out some new words ‘I will carry you, to succeed and fulfil your dreams’ Anita calls out to the group – ‘Mummies! Are you not proud! Wow! Mummies! – we are writing a song for our children! Are you not proud! Are you happy?’ Everyone cheers and says ‘Yes,’ and she asks again – Are you happy!?’ And even more enthusiastically comes the reply – ‘Yes!!’
I chat to Anita as she’s helping tidy up in the kitchen – and I thank her for her dynamism and energy leading the group. She said ‘if you talk to someone, when they don’t know where to go, they get stuck in their house – so I have to bring them all here!’
we use singing as a vehicle for bonding and for learning
On our way home, Pippa and I share our delight in what the group has done today with support from Alysia with volunteers Lin and Diana. Involving these tiny children and their parents creatively is not always an easy thing to achieve but the energy of the group and its leaders made it feel easy. But creating a safe space like this has taken time, patience, and skill. The trust in Alysia, in her team, and in mums like Anita, has been earned.
Once that trust is there, it supports a more positive future for everyone involved. By creating a new song together we help validate each person’s identity, the group is able to bond further. This is one way in which isolated families can start to feel more like they belong to a community.
We can begin to find harmonies together, find our voices, and find the words we want to sing to our children.
When A Child Is A Witness – a requiem for refugees Saturday 26th Feb, 5pm
a dynamic patchwork of music, stories, poetry, theatre and mime
Liz Dilnot Johnson is a composer and co-muser based in Herefordshire, UK.
‘stunning‘ Liz Dilnot Johnson’s double album Intricate Web
‘she has an extraordinary intuition for what works’ Jeffrey Skidmore OBE