One Voice Mixed Chorus finds 'Sanctuary' in stories of immigrants

One Voice Mixed Chorus members hold up the names of transgender people whose lives were lost to violence last year during a recent performance at Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.Courtesy of the artist

January 19, 2018

Minnesota has been a place of refuge for immigrants from the earliest days of statehood — from Scandinavians and African-Americans arriving through the Underground Railroad, to Hmong, Mexican and Somali in more recent years. The stories of arriving in this place are often poignant. Every culture brings music filled with nostalgia for the places and people left behind, as well as hope for the future.

Jane Ramseyer Miller is the artistic director of One Voice Mixed Chorus, an ensemble made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and allied singers. Their mission is to build community and create social change by raising voices in song. She spent a year collecting music and stories as well as immigrant musicians to work with One Voice and present a concert called "Sanctuary." I had a chance to sit down with Jane and find out more about her process and what we'll hear — and see — at the concerts this weekend.

Was there a particular moment that catalyzed this project?

I made a decision to program this concert a day after the November 2016 elections. I knew I needed to take some kind of action, so I decided to create a concert honoring Minnesota immigrants as a way to confront the anti-Islamic, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment. At the time, I wondered if this concert would still be relevant a year later but, sadly, it is more relevant than ever.

How does the immigrant story impact on the LGBT community? Are there parallels?

The more I read and dug into stories of immigrants and refugees in Minnesota the more parallels I discovered between the experience of immigrants and LGBT people. Many LGBT people have been forced out of their childhood home, or community, or place of worship; many have experienced homelessness and dislocation. In the queer community, we talk about birth families and chosen families since many of us have discovered and built new families. "I Come From Good People" is a song that tells this story in a beautiful and poignant way in the concert.

What have you learned as you've researched music for this presentation?

One Voice Mixed Chorus
One Voice Mixed Chorus performs a piece from Benjamin Britten's "Paul Bunyan" opera.
Courtesy of the artist

I am so grateful to have spent the past 14 months researching and creating this concert. It gave me something concrete to contribute when our political world has seemed so out of control and hateful. Recently, I learned that the U.S. spends $5.5 million a day on detention centers, and they are planning to build a new one in Minnesota. The "Sanctuary" concert program, and One Voice website, include a page packed full of statistics and action steps that audience members can take in support of our immigrant neighbors.

Where does the music come from? Did you have to have any written out from folk songs passed down orally?

I worked for over a year researching music and stories to incorporate into this concert. The One Voice music committee is also great at discovering and suggesting interesting repertoire. To program a concert like this takes so much more time than programming a traditional choral concert where you can simply click a button and order scores on the web!

The Hmong song, "Reunion," is based on a Hmong folk song and was written by two Central High School students. The Swedish song, "Domardanzen," also comes from a familiar folk dance tune, and we've even added a traditional dance to go with it.

I also wanted to acknowledge the Dakota and Anishinaabe people who first called Minnesota home. Ojibwe water protector Sharon Day taught us the "Nibi Water Song," and the concert now includes this Ojibwe music with a beautiful water blessing.

Tell me about the musicians joining forces with the chorus.

One Voice is joined on stage by storytellers from Green Card Voices and from the chorus sharing stories of Minnesota immigrants from Ojibwe tribes to current immigrants from Africa and Laos.

We have partnered with Green Card Voices, which has collected stories of youth immigrants, and their stories blew us away the first time we met them in rehearsal. These young people have a resilience that is remarkable. Not only have they traversed a cultural divide in coming to North America, but they have also navigated coming out within their own families. Queer youth storytellers will be featured in the "Sanctuary concert," and Green Card Voices photos and stories will be displayed in the Ordway lobby.

Introduce us to Green Card Voices.

Green Card Voices' mission is to share stories of our nation's 40 million immigrants and put a human face to the current immigration debate. Simply, we hope to introduce immigrants to their neighbors. We want to show that immigrants work on our farms, serve our food, teach our children, create our technologies and start our Fortune 500 companies.

Utilizing web-based video storytelling, we're listening to those with the courage to share their journey, documenting each story in an authentic and unbiased way. Immigrants have played a vital role at each turn in our nation's history, and they continue to do so today. By sharing these stories, we can instill a sense of pride in our nation's immigrant population and thank them for all of their contributions.

How do the singers manage to learn the languages?

The "Sanctuary" concert includes music in Ojibwe, Arabic, French, Spanish, Swedish, German, Somali and Hmong. Without question, the Hmong text was the hardest since no one in our chorus was familiar with the language. Indeed, the "Reunion" song we are performing is one of the only choral pieces that exists in Hmong. We worked with a Hmong student that we met through our OUT in Our Schools collaboration with Johnson High School, transcribed all the texts into IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet] and our singers spent many, many hours reviewing and memorizing.

I insist that all the music in the concert be performed by memory because we are able to connect so much more closely with our audience when we are not holding music. That can be a huge challenge, but I've got a top-notch group of singers, and they are fantastic at taking on a challenge like this.

What was the most touching moment in this project for you? The most light-hearted?

There have been many touching moments in preparing for this concert, but the favorites were the times that we brought in individuals from the Twin Cities to help with pronunciation and dialect. Inevitably, as we worked on the music and text with them, we also got a chance to hear their story.

I'll never forget the first rehearsal where two queer youth from Green Card Voices joined us in rehearsal. After she told her immigration and coming out story, I asked the young woman from Somalia if she could teach us the pronunciation for "Soomaaliyeey Toosoo" (the Somali national anthem until 2012). She worked with us on text, and then I asked her to sing the verses while we sang the chorus. We started singing and were not more than a few lines in when her eyes got big and she buried her face in her hands. Imagine a choir of 125 white people singing your national anthem to you. It was incredibly moving.

What do you hope audiences will understand when they hear this concert?

I mostly want audience members to be immersed in the beauty of music of their immigrant neighbors, but also to be reminded that everyone in this state was an immigrant at some time. The concert will encourage audience members to speak out against hate, talk in your community about these issues, and take at least one action in support of our recent immigrant neighbors in Minnesota.

Concert information

Who: One Voice Mixed Chorus: Minnesota's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allies (LGBTA) chorus.

What: "Sanctuary," a concert celebrating the music of immigrants to Minnesota.

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19, and 3:30 pm. Jan. 21.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $35-$55, online at www.ordway.org, by phone 651-224-4222, or in person at the Ordway Ticket Office.

Note: Sunday's performance will let out about 10 minutes before the Vikings game begins.