March 9, 2012 in Music
Chorus of Dissent: a view from the inside
Last Saturday (June 23rd) a new choir was born, believed to be the first community choir open to all that Stoke Newington has seen in modern times.
At St Mary’s Old Church, at the unusual time of 5:30 pm, I joined with close to 40 singers – mainly locally based – to give spirited performances of two very contrasting pieces to a packed and enthusiastic audience.
The choir is the brainchild of local businesswoman and social entrepreneur Ruth Whitehead. Ruth runs a small business on Stoke Newington Church Street, and is the founder of a local social and cultural group with the intriguing name of “Dissenters London N16″. As the group’s website put it “We want to… create events from a different dissenting angle with the focus on approachability. Down with snobbish mystique, up with new enjoyable experiences for all”.
This give the hint that Ruth’s interpretation of Stoke Newington’s tradition of dissent is not edgy or confrontational, but inclusive. As she explained during the concert, she wanted to hold concerts at times suitable for families (5:30 rather than 8:00), short enough (one hour) that people did not get tired or fidgety, and – most importantly of all – crossing different musical genres, mixing the best of classical music with the best of popular music, so that people of all ages and backgrounds could identify with what was going on.
So, as a surprise addition to the advertised programme of Faure’s Requiem (a well-loved and much performed choral piece), the choir performed Ruth’s own arrangement of the Freddie Mercury song “Somebody to love”.
Everyone involved gave their services for free, and all proceeds went the SMARTN16 campaign, which aims to convert St Mary’s Old Church into a versatile arts space for the people of Stoke Newington.
As one of the people singing on stage, its not for me to assess the performance itself. That would be for someone in the audience. But what I am able to say is that Ruth Whitehead and those around her have created a new oasis of sociability and cultural energy binding people in and around Stoke Newington together through a shared commitment to accessible and affordable music.
The next concert is in the larger St Mary’s Church across the road on Saturday 6th October, and I will be there, as I am sure will be many who enjoyed themselves so much last Saturday. Do come along! There will be plenty of room, a warm welcome and a drink afterwards!
John Sloboda is a musician and activist living and working in North London, and passionate about Stoke Newington.