On a recent winter afternoon in Seattle, the walk through downtown streets is under gray skies and drippy awnings, with a chilling breeze coming off Elliott Bay. A block away, a siren harangues through the concrete canyon of I-5.
But we’re already turning the corner, mounting the steps, and pushing through the doors of Plymouth Congregational Church. And before the doors have even had a chance to close behind us, we’ve entered an entirely different vibe – the full-throated, glorious sound of the Seattle Men’s Chorus in rehearsal.
Mind you, up on stage at the front of the room, the man waving his arms behind the black Manhasset music stand doesn’t think it’s glorious – at least not yet.
SMC Artistic Director Paul Caldwell cuts the chorus off mid-verse with a swipe of his baton.
“I’m just gonna tell y’all the truth,” he says. The twang of his southern upbringing sounds exotic in a region that fancies its native dialect as exceptionally accent-free.
He peers at them over his frame glasses.
“There’s a lot of squirreliness with the notes in that section. Imagine if Evan – ” and Caldwell points at the Chorus’s stellar accompanist, Evan Stults, who is sitting at the grand piano in the corner “—imagine if he was playing it with his catcher’s mitt on. That’s what I’m hearing.”
He looks back down at the music score.
“Let’s try it again from the pick-up to measure 50.”
Caldwell has the kind of lean frame that Woody, the cowboy sheriff from Toy Story, could have been modeled after. And Caldwell employs his entire body in his conducting style – snapping his fingers to communicate the time, leaning into passages for more emotion, puffing up his chest to convey greater volume to his singers, thrashing the air for more emphasis, and variously pleading for more tenderness from the tenors, or more bad-assery from the bass section – “I feel like you’re being too… demure.”
But as the Artistic Director puts chorus members through their paces, he does it not only with aesthetic precision but also with a crackling sense of humor and an abundance of energy that might best be described as joy.
Rehearsals are normally held on weeknights, but this is a special, daylong, Saturday convening, and even so there are over 120 singers present – an inter-generational, multiracial gathering of singers who identify as LGBTQ. The members of the Seattle Men’s Chorus embrace the transformative mission of using their voices not only to entertain, but also to build community. The Chorus sings to illuminate the experiences of LGBTQ people, to expand inclusion and to inspire justice.
And perhaps never before has that mission come so much to the fore as with “Love Beyond Borders,” SMC’s upcoming program on March 20 and 21. That’s because this concert will spotlight Seattle’s unique epicenter as a 21st century effort akin to the antebellum Underground Railroad 200 years ago. Except this time, the refugees aren’t black people fleeing the American South. Instead, they’re LGBTQ individuals who grew up in Muslim-majority countries.
In the Middle East, assaults, executions, and honor killings of LGBTQ people are very real threats. But for the past few years, a retired Seattle chiropractor has been working to help LGBTQ individuals in those countries escape to safety.
Michael Failla has been an activist for most of his life. In high school and college he organized food co-ops and anti-war sit-ins. He began working with refugees years ago when he discovered that his Cambodian housekeeper had escaped the killing fields and he assisted her and others get on with their lives as they came to the United States. Then a wave of Ethiopian immigrants came to Seattle, and he helped them get situated. With the arrival of a new group of Somali refugees, he went so far as to set up Somali Talk Radio to help that community adapt to life in a new environment.
And then at some point, Failla says, “I realized that in different parts of the world, gay people – who were my own people – were being persecuted and killed for being gay. So….”
A new Underground Railroad was born.
Failla says it takes a combination of skills. Often it starts with helping people to find a place to hide in their own countries, then figuring how to get them out of their country into a safer situation where they can apply for asylum.
Refugee camps can be especially perilous for LGBTQ individuals. And all of this happens against a constantly evolving geopolitical landscape. There are changes in leadership, shifts in policy, economic pressures, and compassion fatigue. Travelers along this “Railroad” have a variety of logistical needs. And – sometimes just as much – they need moral support.
If Failla is this Underground Railroad’s chief engineer, there also have been many conductors along the route. There are other organizations, other people, other skill sets – but it takes someone to keep track of things overseas – identifying safe-houses, getting money to stranded refugees, helping with documentation and transportation – all while trying to secure permanent asylum for the refugees in countries in Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States.
Failla is constantly talking up the opportunity to fund and sponsor these refugees, which is exactly what he was doing at a party one day when he met Paul Caldwell.
Caldwell was shocked by the stories Failla shared – of LGBTQ people who had been targeted by their governments and repeatedly subjected to sanctioned harassment and assault; of executions, and “honor” killings carried out by family members.
“I grew up in the rural south and I had a lot of trouble being gay in a very conservative and religious environment,” Caldwell says, “but honor killing was never on the table.”
Caldwell went home and did his research. He read the stories. He learned that over 80 refugees who identify as LGBTQ have been rescued from their hostile home countries in the past couple of years, and still more are in process. He watched the film “Out of Iraq,” about the struggles of a gay Iraqi couple – Nayyef had been a translator during the war in Iraq and Btoo had served in the Iraqi Army. They ended up spending years apart before reuniting in Seattle.
This, Caldwell decided, was a story that the Seattle Men’s Chorus could amplify.
With support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Chorus has commissioned a choral song cycle that illuminates the stories of several of the refugees who have been served by Failla’s Underground Railroad.
Caldwell was deliberate in selecting composers who had a personal background that was consonant in some way to that of the asylum seekers. He wanted the libretto for these new works to be authentic in reflecting their experiences.
Chicago-based Lyn Rye, for example, is a bassist and composer who also works for Majid Al-Rabia, a women-led, LGBTQ+ affirming Islamic community. She had never written for a large-scale chorus before, but that wasn’t her deepest concern.
“Before I wrote a single note of the music I asked to become involved in the work first,” Rye says, and with help from Michael Failla, she did. She was able to have WhatsApp conversations with Iraqi LGBTQ rights activists who have been in hiding in Beirut.
“I spent months with Ibrahim and Mahmoud and became one of their supporters – it’s a type of work that I’d been wanting to do and was equipped to do in some ways. I’ve really been trying to show up for Ibrahim and Mahmoud, and it was that human element of it that came before writing the music.”
Rye’s resulting piece, “The Call,” is based on the cultural tradition of summoning Muslims to prayer, and uses an intricate series of time signatures and a tonal palette that is new to the SMC.
Another composer, Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, had already created a large body of choral works that focus attention on social issues, but this Love Beyond Borders project had particular resonance for the transgender composer. After discussions with a trans Iraqi visual artist who has gained asylum and is now living in Arizona, Bussewitz-Quarm based his song “Speak to Us of Clothes” on a poem by Lebanese-born Kahlil Gibran, who personally identified as a visual artist primarily, although history remembers him as a poet.
For another piece, Caldwell teamed up with his writing partner Sean Ivory. “The Wedding Day” is the based on the love story of the couple featured in the “Out of Iraq” film that had first spurred Caldwell to conceive of this project.
In the land of their birth, Caldwell says, “They couldn’t be out at all – their love was a death sentence, literally.”
Since resettling in Seattle, Nayyef and Btoo have been able to marry.
Another couple that arrived in Seattle only late last year also has provided inspiration to the chorus. Jassem hails from Tunisia, Mado from Syria. The two first met in Qatar, where they’d fled after each of them had received death threats from members of their own families once their sexual identity was discovered.
But homosexuality is illegal also in Qatar, so over the next few years, with the assistance of agencies with an alphabet soup’s worth of acronyms – UNHCR, ORAM, KAOS GL – Jassem and Mado sought asylum in a place where their sexual identity was not reviled.
They were sent to Turkey, where they hoped they’d be safer. But they’d been assigned resettlement in a town near the Black Sea that was primarily Muslim, and in two and a half years they had to change houses 16 times after repeatedly being targeted and attacked.
And then, after years of waiting, they were suddenly granted admission to the United States. They were the first LGBTQ Muslim asylum seekers to be admitted to the United States since Donald Trump was inaugurated.
Upon their arrival in Seattle, Jassem and Mado were welcomed by Chorus members who assisted them with housing and furniture and job contacts, giving them a real community to land in.
English is Jassem’s fourth language, but he is remarkably proficient in such a short time here.
“I love it here – it’s a good place,” he says jubilantly. “It’s a new country that believes in every single person. Here nobody judges anybody. Everybody keeps smiling. I’m sleeping in peace. We are free to live.”
Which brings to mind another one of the songs made possible by the NEA grant. “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” is a reworking of Irving Berlin’s original musical setting of poet Emma Lazarus’s famous lines inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The lines “Yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…” are clearly as pertinent now as they were when they were originally written in 1883.
The fifth piece in this body of new works is by singer-songwriter Bonnie McKee. McKee grew up in Seattle, identifies as bisexual, and has gone on to write or collaborate on bestselling songs sung by Katy Perry, Cher, Adam Lambert and others. Her contribution to this program is “Love You in the Light,” a great melody with uplifting lyrics and an unforgettable hook. It’s likely to become an enduring anthem for the LGBTQ community.
Now just a couple of weeks away from show time, the Chorus is also rehearsing a range of greatest hits by queer artists, ranging from Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” to Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Half of the “Love Beyond Borders” program will feature those familiar tunes and the other half will be devoted to this profound new song cycle.
Caldwell reflects on the upcoming concert. “I love music, but there are things in the world that matter more than music, so my take on it is, whenever possible music should be placed in the service of humanity and peace.
“We’re trying to create a place where LGBTQ can celebrate and be celebrated.”
The Seattle Men’s Chorus will perform its Love Beyond Borders concert on Friday, March 20 at 8 PM, and Saturday, March 21 at 2 PM, at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It will reprise the performance at theGALA Festival 2020 in Minneapolis in July.