Singing Cultures Journey 

The Choir

The Singing Cultures Choir has been central to bringing life to the hidden history of Nigerian Classical Music. Currently, the choir is formed of 16 passionate individuals who came together after auditioning in September 2016. Choir members have the dual challenge of ‘singing’ and ‘talking’ whilst engaging with the music and cultural legacy of Nigerian composers.

The Choir's Singing

The choir’s ‘singing’ is led by Juwon Ogungbe who has guided the choristers to evolve as a focussed and expressive choir. In Phase 1 the choir grappled with the vocal challenges of two of Fela Sowande’s choral compositions. Both pieces, titled ‘The Wedding Song’ and ‘Come Out and Dance’, required the choir to hit some rather high-pitched notes. Sowande isn’t particularly renowned for composing high-pitched songs but it is a feature of the two pieces chosen for Phase 1.

Initially the high notes of ‘The Wedding Song’ seemed insurmountable. As the choristers began to conquer those they were presented with the even higher notes of ‘Come Out and Dance’. Needless to say ‘hitting the high notes’ is now etched as a firm memory of Phase 1 rehearsals!

In keeping with the trend in Nigerian Classical Music ‘of honouring tradition’ as an integral dynamic of cultural evolution, African folksongs were introduced as part of the choir’s repertoire. Songs like Oko and Lashoni Langa stretched the choristers to sing in African languages. The lower tonal melodies of these songs were in contrast to Sowande’s higher pitched choral pieces.

In Phase 1 the choir also created two original songs titled ‘Black, Brown, Red, White and Blue’ and ‘Planting the Seeds’. The textual content for these songs came from their reflections on the music-making of Nigerian composers as a context for discussing the challenges and real possibilities of positive inter-cultural dialogues (elaborated in more detail in the section The Choir’s Talking).

Singing Cultures Audition Part 1 - The Warm Up

The choir’s ‘singing’ journey in Phase 1 is captured in this selection of video footage from rehearsals.

Sweet Sounds from the Singing Cultures Audition Part 1 – The Warm Up

Singing Cultures Audition Part 2

Sweet Sounds from the Singing Cultures Audition Part 2 – 30 minutes after warm-up! What will this lovely choir achieve after 12 rehearsals…

Singing Cultures ‘Work in Progress’

A Glimpse into the Evolving Story and Sound of Singing Cultures.

Piano and Vocal Accompaniment by Juwon Ogungbe

Singing Cultures Choir in Rehearsals - Part 1

Warming up with the tones of African folk songs

Singing Cultures Choir in Rehearsals - Part 2

Hitting the high notes to meet the pitch of Fela Sowande’s songs

Come Out and Dance

The Wedding Song

Singing Cultures Choir in Rehearsals - Part 3

Creating new songs

Black, Brown, Red, White and Blue

Let Our Hearts Make Room for Sunflowers and Roses to Bloom

The Choir's Talking

The choir’s ‘talking’ has been led by Bilkis Malek. She has engaged the choristers in themed discussions reflecting on the cultural legacy of Nigerian Classical Music and its message for a ‘common humanity’.

In Phase 1 selective Sowande archives plus references to other Nigerian composers were presented to stimulate discussion on the themes of ‘Home’ ‘Inter-Ethnic Relations’ and ‘Cultural Reciprocity’. Choir members reflected on these themes through poetry, biographical accounts, visual narration, performance and plain ‘talking’(!).

Individual presentations mushroomed into group discussions covering a wide range of experiences. For example, being able to create ‘homes’ in London that are spaces of safety, love and spiritual connection where “anything is possible”. But how the positive dynamics of these personal spaces remain constrained amidst a backdrop of unresolved tensions marked by such experiences as the uneven impact on black communities of policies like stop and search, or the fall out from the Brexit vote.

Choristers also shared their personal cultural journeys which for some, especially in childhood, unfolded as a process ‘from rejection to taking pride in their African heritage’. At other times the personal cultural journeys unearthed connections provoking thoughts about the real possibilities of spaces and communities that ‘embrace all mankind’, such as a universal Egyptian lineage according everyone the status of kings and queens.

The range of ideas and experiences shared in workshop discussions are reflected in this selection of audio excerpts listed below.

1. Our homes in London…
2. Loving London. Being British. But…
3. Tensions of Integration…
4. Mistrust and Conflict Between Communities…
5. Mistrust and Conflict Within Communities…
6. From Resistance to Pride in African heritage…
7. Artists provide inspiration…
8. Hope in Moments of Unity and Shared Heritage…
9. In need of a new language for all humankind…

The themed discussions provided raw material for two new poems:

‘We are the black, the brown, the red, the white and the blue’ (read full poem here)
Written by Bilkis Malek with the Singing Cutures Choir, Oct 2016

Singing Cultures Choir – Verses based on choristers’ feedback on the theme of ‘Home’, by Bilkis Malek Oct 2016

We are the Black, the Brown,
and the Red, the White & the Blue

Our homes with open doors
Foundations rooted in the city’s pulse as a cultural capital
Doormats well-trodden
Welcoming all shades of the black, the brown, and the red, white and blue

Our homes not of bricks and mortar
Spaces reaching out to humankind
Inspired by London’s kindred spirit
Embracing all mankind
We can be the black, the brown, and the red, white and blue

Our homes with nooks for the modern technosphere
Global connections made ever easier
Spiritual connections effortlessly colour blind
Meaningful ethnic relations stunted by the nation’s airs and graces
Yes sometimes still dominated by the red, white and blue

Our homes with beautiful stained glass windows
Colours from the city’s melting pot
Breezes whistling ‘anything is possible’
The source of our imagination and dreams
Generating promises of a better world
We are the black, the brown, the red, the white and the blue

‘Sunflower Blooms Stained by Blood Red Roses’ (read full poem here)
Written by Bilkis Malek with the Singing Cultures Choir, Oct 2016


Our artists our light
Plant cultural seeds of unity
Heal thorny wounds of Biafra, Morant Bay and slavery
Nurture again the fluidity of our human race

Thirsts quenched by the beauty of folklore
Christ, Oludumare, Allah and Jah
No longer opposing enemies
Their spiritual connection unbroken

Blooms once shy of Eastern heritage
Blossom and take pride in fusing heritage
Adire textiles worn with Victorian poses
Ancestral names no longer an adversity
Embracing our linguistic diversity
We revel in sunflower moments of ska unity

Digging beyond our African roots
Unearthing our Egyptian lineage
Origins shared by neighbours past and present
Our sunflower crowns bloom with difference and colour
We all attain status as Kings and Queens

Then as we witness again the thorns of SUS
Blight strangles our roots once more
Our blooms droop
Stems seep blood red
Staining our children’s innocence
Uninhibited plays of unity
Consigned to memory
Learned hatred
Begins again the cycle of disharmony

No language to capture the yield of our sunflower blooms
An abundance of seeds
Await their water
Our yellow brighter future
Achingly on hold
As we reason again
Roses have their inner beauty too