GALA, Ready or Not

 

Phoenix

Bad ass choir t-shirts

 
Ok. So, for anyone who has been like “Angie / Gayan / Verdana Leviathan Strong, WHY have you not replied to the email I sent you two months ago / done the thing you said you were going to do??? I’m WAITING!!!” I have a four letter word for you:

GALA. 

(Warning – that wasn’t one, but there are lots of f-bombs below.)

The GALA International Choral Festival that’s being held in Denver this weekend, where queer choirs (LGBTQetc) from around the world get together at the Performing Arts Complex and sing to each other for like 5 days. 

This time, I’m singing with Phoenix: Colorado’s Trans Community Choir

It’s a very new group founded by my partner Sam less than a year ago. We’ve been busting our asses to get our set ready since we found out in April that we could actually get on the program. 

Our rehearsal schedule has been steadily increasing in the fashion of a snowball rolling rapidly downhill. 

And our set, which is made up entirely of original pieces written by choir members, includes one of my songs, for which I wrote a choral version, with parts & everything. 

We’ll be performing right before a choir from Beijing, for an audience of a couple thousand people. 

I think it could safely be said that one of the unofficial themes of our set is Everybody Outside Their Comfort Zone (Together).

For some folks, this is about being in a choir at all … Singing with a group … Learning to blend and taking the risk that someone might hear their voice. For others, it’s about discovering a whole new vocal range after beginning the hormonal journey of transition, and the uncertainty of opening one’s mouth and not knowing what sound will come out. 

I’ve often said that one of the things I value about this group, and my personal experience in it, is that it’s an equal opportunity comfort zone challenger. I really mean that. Although I’m pretty at ease with group singing as a general concept and I’m not dealing with any big changes in my voice (or my gender presentation), I sometimes feel like I spend almost as much time resisting the process as I spend engaging with it willingly. (And yes, that’s my excuse for being slow to attend to other commitments, like that email I really do intend to reply to … )

For me, the stream of resistance looks like this:

– OMG what do you mean I’m the lead/only instrumentalist on this song? What if I fuck it up???

– OMG I’m fucking it up!!! It’s happening!!! In front of people!!! What do I do? How can I even continue living after this horrible fuck-up???

– OMG. Sam wants us to perform this song that I wrote. How can I possibly make other people sing something I wrote? What if no one but Sam even WANTS to sing it? Maybe they think it’s dumb, or just not choral, and we’re only doing it because I’m Sam’s partner. How can I bear the shame of people hating my song and being forced to sing it?

– And – ok, if I DO agree to do it, I/we (really “I” because I’m too afraid to let go of control) have to come up with an Arrangement. And write it out. In notes. On a staff. Like a, you know, I think the technical term is real music person. That sounds HARD. And very time consuming. And intimidating. And I am bound to fuck it up. 

– And speaking of intimidating, how am I supposed to teach it? I don’t know how to teach a harmony. And don’t I also need to play it on the piano then? Like, 2 parts at the same time? Um, I can’t. I especially can’t in front of these, you know, real music people.

– Geez, and then there’s, what is my relationship to trans-ness, anyway? I have a transgender partner. A fair number of trans people in my life. I’m part of the “trans community.” When I am singing in a trans community choir, this aspect of my identity/life comes to the forefront for examination in a way it doesn’t usually. Are there certain things I should be doing? Fights I should be fighting? There’s an odd feeling of responsibility that comes with contemplating these things. A feeling that I should be … standing up more. 

And then there’s … gosh, GALA itself. 175 choruses. That sounds really fucking BIG. In case you haven’t noticed, this year I’ve been embracing my tendencies toward introversion. This is going to be thousands of people in a smallish area downtown, which is already full of humans. That’s a hell of a lot of small talk. And don’t get me started on the parking! Plus, I still have to work my day job. I’m going to be exhausted. 

SOOOOOOOOOOOOO that’s been my inner monologue over the past few months – I’m sorry you had to witness that.

But. 

It’s getting close to go time. 

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. 

And …

Ok, I’m excited. 

The resistance is still there, an underlying mutter. 

But there are these spikes of … This is going to be cool. 

The tide is shifting. The things I appreciate about GALA are coming more to the surface. The great concerts. The solidarity. Performing in this incredible space. When I think about it, how did I get so lucky?

Working and singing with the trans choir over the past year has been a really wonderful experience. This group is so vibrant. The energy of each rehearsal is uplifting and energizing. Every member is truly bringing their heart. And even though it seemed at first like Mission: Impossible, we have really pulled together on this set of brand new songs that didn’t even exist three months ago. And it’s sounding good. And they don’t hate my song. A lot of them seem to actually really enjoy it. Astonishing! In fact, when the choir joins me (in harmony) on these lines that felt so idiosyncratic and personal when I wrote them … It’s like … Man. An amazing feeling, actually. A wave of joy spreading through me like warm, gentle surf. 

I love singing with this group so much. I am really looking forward to our sharing this moment, well, this fifteen minutes, together. 

It is going to be fucking awesome. 

And after that … Sleep. And, yes, email. I promise. ❤

Angie - I Encompass All Pronouns - Colorado Trans Community Choir - Phoenix

Other side of our bad ass t-shirts

Yay! Mosaic!

If you were in my choir — which is Mosaic Gospel Choir, part of the Wesley Fellowship at CU in Boulder, CO — you would have gotten this awesome reminder from our choir director, Gary, yesterday:

Because God loves the shit out of you. And so do I.

And that is just one reason why I am so excited for our first rehearsal of the spring season, which is tonight!

20150114-205515-75315753.jpg

I joined this choir last fall with Sam and I’ll admit that at first I had, not a love-hate, but maybe a love-indifference relationship with the group, and until about two thirds of the way through the semester I was like “Yeah this is pretty fun, but I probably won’t do it next semester.” I think this was because I had to miss a few rehearsals and the rehearsals were already shorter than most choirs I’ve been in, so perhaps it took a little longer than average for me to be fully brainwashed, I mean absorbed into the juicy goodness of this choir.

But then one day I was going through some emotional crap and I found myself singing one of our songs over and over again, and then even doing what the song said:

There’s power when you call His name,
With faith to believe why He came.
Even with the faith of a mustard seed,
Just call His name when you’re in need …

(As you say that in your head, make sure to put in lots of bad-ass triplets and syncopation.)

Then the call-and-response,

Call Him — Jesus — Call Him — Jesus —
Call Him ———

(that’s where you hold it out really dramatically)

So that’s what I started doing. Just speaking the Name, and letting all of the pain and struggle and need pour out through the voice. And what do you know? Emotional crap gone!

God literally loves the shit out of me.

Of course the shit comes back. Because you know, we give our problems to God but we obsessively grab them back again. And we give them up again. And we take them back again. But throughout this process nothing has been more comforting to me than singing the Name.

So … Thank you, Mosaic Gospel Choir, for bringing me back into conversation with Jesus! I appreciate it soooooo much!

And not only that but, it’s the kind of gospel choir that talks to Krishna too. One of the first songs we learned was George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”! And you don’t have to pretend that you’re committed to any particular Christian denomination. And you can be as “out there” as you are, in any way that you are. All you have to do is want to sing and share the love in your heart with a bunch of other awesome people and with God.

And, astoundingly, when I am singing in this choir, my body feels like the exactly most perfect vehicle for the expression of my unique praise. What drew me to gospel music in the first place was that what I do when I worship — stand up, raise my hands, move my hips and my head and my feet — isn’t weird. And this group does me one better: if my belly sticks out between my shirt and my pants when I do stretches — it almost feels ok.

And if all that wasn’t enough, it meets in this funky blue chapel that looks like a chalet:

20150114-205320-75200528.jpg

And that’s why I’m coming back for another season.

Yay!

Registered!

Tonight I had a very happy experience: I paid my dues and became a registered, active member of the Leader’s Guild for the Dances of Universal Peace!  😀  😀  😀  I confess that I have officially been in training since January of 2012 (yep pretty much exactly a year ago) when I asked Timothy Dobson to mentor me, but have not felt like I could afford the dues until now.  (My mom gave me the money as a Christmas present.  Thank you, Mom!!!)

I am super, super psyched.  The main reason is that I will be able to access the database of Dance write-ups … at last!  Up until now I have been gathering Dances here and there … sometimes quickly scribbling them down in the afterglow of a Dance evening, then figuring out the chords later; sometimes exchanging PDFs with other lovers of the Dances; sometimes pestering leaders to tell me the movements, or chords, or the rest of the words to Dances that spoke to me so deeply that I couldn’t go on without knowing how to play them and teach them and pass them on.  These methods have given me plenty to work with over the past years, and there are several Dances of the collection gathered in this way that I am still learning.  But I have been dreaming of being able to access the huge accumulated body of work that is the PeaceWorks database of Dances.  I can’t wait to be able to immediately follow up with learning all the Dances that I feel a connection with, and find new ones to suit specific occasions.  As I said: Really Excited!!!

This evening I was going through the folder of Dance write-ups and hand-written instructions (sometimes even hand-transcribed musical notation … though it was tedious, I actually had a beautiful time copying from the original Dance booklets at Hakim’s house in Florida … I felt a connection to the old Irish monks) in preparation for leading some singing tomorrow night.  The Sufi Order in Denver just started this new monthly gathering called Heart Song: Sufi Singing and they invited me to contribute.  I felt, and feel, incredibly honored and humbled to be called upon, but also deeply thrilled, because sharing this music is my passion.  I really just couldn’t believe that they would ask me to contribute to the community in this way.  I feel like … I want to do the utmost honor to my teachers by sharing music and leading singing in a way that creates an opportunity for the people participating to really connect with their hearts, to feel a sense of expansion and unity and the joy of praise.  I know those are just some of the things that I get out of this form of music, thanks to the incredible spiritual musicians and song leaders whom I have been very privileged to be around.  Part of me feels like it’s silly for me to think I could ever contribute anything worthwhile, and that my attempting to do so just shows my naivete, or perhaps my upstart-ness … I want to serve with respect for my teachers and with humility toward those I might lead, but of course I question the purity of my attitude.  I’d like to say I know what an idiot I am inside … but sometimes I still surprise myself with new levels of idiocy.  In the midst of this internal muddle about “how to be,” when I have a moment of consciousness I just try to get out of the way and let something come through me.

One of the songs I want to share tomorrow night is from the Dance called “Clouds” by Susan Sheely.  This was one of the first songs I learned to play, back when I did everything on ukulele.  I got to meet this amazing woman this summer, at “The Crestone Experience” Dance Camp.  (She actually led a Dance playing the ukulele!  !  !)  I went up to her and thanked her for composing or bringing through this Dance, and this chant, which have given me so much heart-felt ecstasy.  The best way I can put it is this: The mantra OM MANI PADME HUM is said to be untranslatable, though it uses actual words that gesture toward the concept of a jewel in the lotus heart; it is also said to contain and transmit the whole essence of the teachings of the Buddha.  I feel something similar, though more personal, with this song, with or without the Dance.  It is like the song carries the whole essence of Sufism for me.  It’s like the song is a doorway into another plane of felt knowledge, of understanding beyond mental doubts, beyond explanations.  The words are from a Rumi poem, one of Coleman Barks’ translations.  Each line is repeated twice:

This is how I would die, into the love I have for you,

As pieces of cloud dissolve in sunlight.

La illaha illa’llah, La illaha illa’llah,

Hu Allah Hu, Hu Allah Hu

I looked and looked for a video of this Dance online, but couldn’t find one.  I remember the first or possibly second time I experienced doing this Dance in Columbia with Hakim (going by Hakima then) leading — as I spun out singing “Hu Allah Hu,” I did feel myself dissolving into the light.  As I waltzed with the new acquaintances who would become such close friends, my heart expanded far beyond its previous borders, to include everyone in the room, and the world beyond.  That was one of the moments when I felt released from my usual mental background noise, and fully present with the Divine in myself and in everything and everyone else.  That was when we Danced in the Unity Church hall, which I loved, with its shiny concrete floor and beautiful, dramatic, glittering felt wall hangings.  For me, it was the beginning.

And I remember singing it again with Hakim this fall at Ozark Camp.  We were gathered in the Healing Temple, people sitting all around the room on chairs and bunk beds and floor pillows because it was too cold to sing on the porch.  It was late at night and everybody was finding their own harmonies.  The music filled the room like a golden shimmer; the energy was tangible to a sensitive hand.  My chest opened and my heart soared upward and I thought, This is where it’s at for me.  Everything I need is in this song.

So it’s with great gratitude and honor especially to my beloved teacher and original mentor Hakim, and to all the teachers that I have had, that I go forward on this path, knowing that I have been blessed to sing with and learn from some truly, truly great leaders, with the real gift for drawing out people’s heart songs.  I carry the imprints of these blissful and life-changing experiences within me and I hope that some of the energy of those times may come through what I offer.  I think maybe it’s part of my ministerial calling, to lead and share and join in worship music.  At least at this point in my life, it’s what I love doing most of all.

Okay, I will leave you with this video — it’s not the same as “Clouds” but this chant is another one that early on had the power to transport me out of my ordinary experience and into a more connected state — like maybe the song is the outlet that I plug my cord into … or is it the chord?  Clearly I’ve stayed up past my bedtime writing this, so.  Shakur Allah — the quality of Divine Gratitude — when we give thanks, we experience God within us.  Sweet dreams!