A Queer choir? In Pembrokeshire? I must know more, so when Jali Armitage Hicks agreed to meet I was delighted.
Jali tells me a little about their musical background. They grew up in St David’s, joining the cathedral choir at age 6, and becoming head chorister at 16. At 18 they left to study music, opera and voice at Colchester, earning the equivalent of a BA in music. During their study time they also acquired a Performance Fellowship diploma from the Royal Academy and earned a Licentiate diploma from Trinity College London. Jali spent much of their time in college and afterwards both in solo performance and professional choirs, teaching privately and working with groups like church choirs, community choirs and the a capella group they started outside of college.
I ask them to explain why they are using the word Queer to define their choir?
Jali explains, “It’s about reclaiming the language that has been used as an insult for so long. Queer includes everyone, gay, lesbian, trans, and those who don’t identify as any one gender… making the invisible visible. Assumptions that one is straight or female, for example, can be very stressful”
So, a Queer choir lets people know they are welcome, and will be meeting with people from their own community? Expanding further Jali shares that they’ve always loved singing in groups, but found it could be difficult, as a gender non-conforming gay person, to feel seen and accepted as they are.
“We were talking with friends about the choirs I have been involved with before.” they tell me, “And I was saying that I had always felt constrained within them. Society is heteronormative and binary. People usually assume that everyone is straight or that they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. I just didn’t fit in. When everyone else turned up in evening gowns for performances, it just wasn’t me. I wore a dinner jacket. I don’t think people necessarily mean to, but there is an unconscious bias against diversity. People cut you out. If I was living in somewhere like London I would have joined a Queer choir. That not being the case I decided why not set one up here in Pembrokeshire.”
Jali shakes their head “I hadn’t run a choir for twenty years, but my partner and friends were encouraging, and they help me out and are really supportive.” They laugh, “I was rather bludgeoned into it, because I wouldn’t have done it without them” The idea began to take shape over the next couple of months and they have just had their first rehearsal.
“Singing is so nourishing, so good for positive mental health. It creates a bond, people breathing together, hearts beating together. We wanted to bring people together over the three counties, to make a community of LGBTQ+ people who might feel out-of-place in a traditional choir.”
So are you saying that LGBTQ+ people wouldn’t join a traditional choir?
“Some will of course, but for many people assumption can be made that can be restrictive. For example, where would a trans person sit in a conventional choir which is usually divided into men and women?”
Jali’s choir members are seated according to how high or low their voices are, and not by their perceived gender, and this isn’t always the same as it would be in a traditional choir setting.
I am keen to know how the first session went.
“People were really happy, joyous. There is a relief at being able to express yourself in a safe place. It was deliciously camp. Personalities just blossomed in the welcoming space we created.”
Jali explained that about eighteen people of all ages came together for the first session, aged from early twenties to late sixties. They came from across the three counties. “We had all kinds of people there, professionals, teachers, self-employed, retired and non-working – gay, lesbian, bi, trans and non-binary – A really eclectic bunch. And more have said they are coming to the next session.”
Each person had the opportunity to introduce themselves and to state how they wished to be addressed and how they want to be seen.
“This almost never happens in the world generally,” Jali explains, “And makes such a difference to feeling comfortable around being oneself.”
What sort of music will the choir be singing?
“We started with a 5 part harmony arrangement of the Elvis song, ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. But we will be learning all sorts of eclectic songs that are fun – rounds and part songs, spirituals, world music and arrangements of popular songs. I’m even planning an arrangement of a 4-part harmony version of the James Bond theme, when I have time to get it down on paper!”
Is everyone an accomplished singer?
Jali insists it isn’t necessary to think of oneself as a ‘good’ singer, nor is it necessary to read music. Parts can be taught by ear and there are always apps and recording technology to help us learn. It’s just as much about bringing people together. In cities these communities already exist.”
Will the choir be performing in public and will it be just for the LGBTQ+ community?
Jali says, “It’s early days yet but we would like to perform for everyone. We have the idea of taking music out into the community. Wouldn’t it be great to just sing on the beach?”
I insist on getting an invite to the first performance. It sounds fun and is a great way to bring people together.
Jali is chair of Enfys, the staff support network for LGBTQ+ people across the health board, where they work, and is passionate about creating LGBTQ+ safe spaces and inclusivity. Jali also works privately as a hypnotherapist, counsellor, voice therapist and singing teacher.
So, when is the next meeting?
“The group will be meeting fortnightly on alternate Saturday afternoons at 2pm, and Thursday evenings at 7.30pm for 2 hours at Bloomfield House Community Centre in Narberth. The next rehearsal is on Thursday 14th March, and following that, on Saturday 30th March.”
“Just one more thing,” Jali asks as they leave, “We would really benefit from an accompanist… So, if there is a pianist out there from the Queer community, who fancies getting involved we would love to hear from them.”
Interested, in playing the piano for the choir or just finding out more about joining in please contact Jali at:
FOOTNOTE: Anyone from the LGBTQ+ community will know about gender neutral pronouns. For those who have never come across this before, the article is written in gender-neutral language, that is language that minimizes assumptions about social gender or biological sex.