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My Musical (and Writing) History

I've been singing and playing music all my life - at home, in school and church and with friends - then later on in folk clubs and pubs, and then bands - and all along, with friends. When I lived in Zimbabwe and then Malawi in the 1980s, singing was an important means of communication, before I was able to speak the conversational Shona/Chichewa I eventually learned. I came home with over a hundred gorgeous songs and choruses buzzing in my ears, many of which I've been teaching and singing in Scotland and elsewhere ever since.

In Africa I started writing, beginning with a monthly column in the New Internationalist, "Letters from Mawere", and moving on to books and essays. I carried on writing for ten years, till in 1998 cultural commentary gave way to different kinds of exploration - dreamwork, poetry and other things.  Since 2006, I have gradually returned to writing again, and my Rough Guides to the Heartland is now available in website format.  I call it a blook, as it's neither a blog nor a book, but something in between.

As I said, music has accompanied me through life - in fact, during my ten years in Fife from 1990-2000, I made my living by singing, playing and facilitating music groups. But it wasn't till I was offered the job of directing the Voice House community choir in Edinburgh, starting in January 2001, that I turned to music wholeheartedly, and it became my main creative outlet.

Recently

Over the past decade and a half, I've found myself arranging songs and writing fresh material for the groups I sing with.  I have slowly developed different groups for different kinds (and levels of difficulty) of musical pieces.  Since 2003, I have been running Saturday "spirituals" workshops (or "Songs of the Earth and Heart"), teaching my own chants and songs, many of which we have recorded.

I have been writing songs since I was 14 or 15, Yvonne on swingbut in spite of years of playing in bands and leading sing-songs and musical ensembles, I never felt able to perform my own songs in public till December 2004!  One or two concerts got that urge out of my system, and then, a couple of years later, with massive help from a brilliant (and saintly) singing friend, and lovely contributions from some excellent musicians, my first (and probably only) album, Swimming with Angels was made.

We have also made several recordings of workshops, and in the studio with different groups, all available.  Recently, I have produced a booklet of my songs and chants, called Songs of the Earth and Heart.

 

General Life Story

Looking further back, I studied German in the 1970s, eventually writing a PhD on German Naturalist and Expressionist drama, under the inspiring and friendly guidance of the late Professor Edward McInnes.

I also spent a lot of time in Berlin, and so when the Berlin Wall came down, and I was called to watch the events on TV, in the Youth Hostel in Nairobi - where I was just on my way home from my years in Zimbabwe and Malawi - it meant a huge amount to me.  The world changed, so swiftly and unexpectedly, in a beautiful and harmonious way - both East/West and South African frozenness was melted away.  We shouldn't forget this.

During my extended academic years I sang in several classical choirs, most notably and enjoyably the Edinburgh University Renaissance Singers.

Then I wandered off to the USA, where I travelled about, fell in love, and spent a year living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with frequent visits to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina felt very close to home, and I was grateful to have the chance to visit New Orleans again in 2009, and be shown around the recovering city by my good friends Peggy and Julia.

But I had always wanted to go to Africa. (My parents had spent a few formative years in West Africa as Church of Scotland missionaries, before returning to start their family.)  And so that was what I did when I came home from the USA in a bit of a meltdown. I got myself a place as a 'volunteer' English teacher in a rural school in Zimbabwe, and stayed in Africa, one way and another, for 6 years - from early 1984 till the very month the Berlin Wall came down - November 1989.

 

Lessons Learned

My first return visit to Zimbabwe (and first ever visit to South Africa) in spring 2011 - stands out as a highlight.  It reminded me just how much I owe to Africa - both musically, and in wider human terms.  The whole way I work with groups is based on the attitudes and values which living in Africa taught me.  It seems to me that, in contrast with the way we Westerners usually talk and think, in relation to Africa we are always net receivers.  We have much more of value to learn and receive from Africa than we have to give and teach there - and we have received, and continue to receive, so much musical and cultural inspiration from Africa, both directly and indirectly - in return for what we have given them - Christianity, football and the mobile phone! (and a host of intractable problems, of course)