GOSHEN, Ind. — The first things Kate Friesen noticed about the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir were their colorful scarves and bare feet.
“But their sound was different, too,” said Friesen, a senior English major from Archbold, Ohio, who first saw the choir as a high school junior. “They were singing in different languages and using the full range of their voices. They didn’t sound like other women’s choirs.”
That distinctive look and sound has defined the Women’s World Music Choir for just over a decade. This winter the choir celebrated 10 years of global music making, having performed songs in 30 languages from all over the world — from Appalachia to Bulgaria to South Africa.
Directed by Debra Brubaker, professor of music, the choir avoids traditional choral pieces in favor of world music that showcases the range and power of the female voice, while also highlighting the role of women in cultures around the world. Many of the songs in the choir’s repertoire focus on the daily lives of global women, touching on themes like hard work, marriage, female friendships, nature, community and spirituality.
“Audiences resonate with the choir’s strong chest voice, the color and the movement, but especially the stories,” Brubaker said. “Our songs have to tell a story.”
The choir’s focus on telling diverse stories has shaped Friesen’s view of what it means to be part of a global community.
“Hearing the songs of other countries connects us to the people from the places where they originate and allows us to get intimate with a tiny piece of a different culture,” Friesen said. “This choir is about making music, but it’s also about curiosity: wanting to explore the world and find the intersection between other people’s stories and our own.”
Breaking down barriers
For Dominique Chew, a junior English major from Hesston, Kan., the women’s choir fosters a community of strong women centered around music. Chew enjoys the annual spring Earthtones concert when choir members get to invite their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female friends to join them for one of the songs.
“Singing on stage with a ton of women who have helped to shape us into the women we are today is overwhelmingly empowering,” Chew said.
The women’s choir embraces the idea of community within the choir but also with their audiences, regularly invited to participate during performances.
“When Deb [Brubaker] teaches a song to an audience and they sing along, that feels like God’s kingdom,” Friesen said. “I love seeing people in the audience smiling and singing with us. It becomes almost a conversation. It brings out the music in other people.”
The choir traveled to Pennsylvania for a spring break tour, and one of the benefits was seeing how people respond to their music on a closer level, Brubaker said. When the choir performed at an inner-city school in Philadelphia, the young audience sang and danced enthusiastically.
“We’re reaching young people with our music,” Brubaker said. “There are no barriers.”
By reaching out to diverse audiences, Friesen believes the choir exemplifies Goshen’s core values of global citizenship and compassionate peacemaking.
“I like to think we’re peacemakers,” Friesen said. “Music is a necessary way to make peace because it connects you with someone in a way that talking can’t.”
Singing from the core
In addition to promoting community through music, the women’s choir aims to celebrate the spirit and energy that women bring to the world as creators and sustainers of life and art. And that starts with their voices.
During rehearsals, Brubaker uses tai chi and other techniques to push the choir to use their whole bodies when they sing. Choir members laugh when she asks them to pretend to dig for potatoes as a way to open up their bodies through the hips, but it works, she says.
“In order to sing strongly, we need to open up that deep core,” Brubaker said. “It’s exciting to see the joy in new choir members as they discover that power within themselves.”
Friesen believes that singing from that deep place extends beyond choir practice.
“In an environment that empowers women to use all of their voice in singing, it also allows a woman to use her voice in all aspects of her life,” Friesen said.