Sing loud, sing proud

Eighty gay and lesbian choirs are preparing to take Paris by storm
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The Independent Culture

Paris promises to be a hotbed of musical passion this spring, as 1,500 singers descend upon the city for the 11th Various Voices festival. This gay and lesbian choral fest has been a regular fixture in Europe since 1985, when the first event took place in Cologne (with just four choirs). It has been gathering momentum ever since, and the organisers in Paris expect in the region of 80 choirs. Six of them will be British.

Paris promises to be a hotbed of musical passion this spring, as 1,500 singers descend upon the city for the 11th Various Voices festival. This gay and lesbian choral fest has been a regular fixture in Europe since 1985, when the first event took place in Cologne (with just four choirs). It has been gathering momentum ever since, and the organisers in Paris expect in the region of 80 choirs. Six of them will be British.

Gay Abandon, one of those six, is a no-audition choir based in Yorkshire, with members ranging from those who last sang at school to people with extensive musical training. The choir is the brainchild of Jane Edwardson, musical director, arranger and conductor. Edwardson had been singing and arranging music for Sheffield Socialist Choir for some years and in 1997 decided that she wanted to be part of an all-gay choir. Her background in community singing meant that accessibility was very important to her, hence the open-door policy.

In setting up Gay Abandon, Edwardson joined a rich tradition of lesbian and gay singing that began in the late 1970s with the formation of groups such as the San Francisco and the Seattle Gay Men's Choruses. Gala, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, is an international association based in the US that puts on festivals and boasts 10,000 singers from more than 200 choruses. Various Voices, its European counterpart, is taking place in France for the first time this spring, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Germany is sending 24 choirs, while the host nation has only two choirs taking part.

Gay Abandon is typical of the gay choral movement in its grass-roots, community-based appeal. It gives members the opportunity to be creative, to sing well, to be part of an extensive social network and, in their visibility and the content of some of their songs, to be politically engaged. They are working on a programme that reflects the lives and loves of the gay community. It includes The Communards' song "More to Love", which Edwardson has arranged into a celebratory choral piece. Ian Baxter, a bass, sums up what it means to him to be part of the choir: "I love singing and realising that I can sing. I love being part of such a richly diverse group. It feels like a hugely political thing when you're doing it, and I love that aspect of it, too."

For Edwardson, 47, a nurse, the creative aspect is immensely rewarding. She describes how much she enjoys "bringing a piece of music to choir for the first time, teaching the first notes, then the whole process of building it into a piece that we can perform".

Camilla Veale, who has been with Gay Abandon for five years, says: "Jane has a very difficult tightrope to walk between encouraging those with less experience and ensuring that the very good people don't get bored. And she also has to keep the fun element." There's sure to be plenty of that in Paris.

Various Voices, various venues, Paris, 3-8 May ( www.variousvoicesparis.com)

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