” I reckon the kids have learned more about the history of their local community in 4 songs and a mural or art than any textbook or lecture. Not only that, as they paint those lives into being and sing the songs, they live the characters a wee bit themselves!” Strong, inspiring words from Yvonne Lyon as we talked about her involvement with the Absent Voices project. Yvonne is on board as a singer songwriter with the project mainly exploring the role of ‘work songs’. These ‘work songs’ are not only beautiful but also cover a whole range of genres when it comes to songs and music. A piece of music sung while carrying out a working task, usually repetitive, back-breaking work, these songs not only detailed the work, maybe included a narrative but were also used to keep the field hands, factory workers and slaves moving in the process. Yvonne is very much interested in process as she adopts a flexible approach to what she individually as an artist will produce at the end of the Absent Voices project. As she said herself, “I’m allowing the process to guide the product. I am much more interested in the processes going on. I am extremely interested in how we can enter into the process of making art to re-imagine the sugar industry: the legacy good and bad. Re-imagining is important for me. I am keen to help people see through song. The process of writing a song can open up your eyes and ears to so much more than just reading about history and really does bring aspects to life for people, whether it’s in the act of writing or listening.”
So far Yvonne has worked with Whinhill Primary School, to write and record four songs. She is also on board to compose the music for three filmpoems with Alastair Cook. In terms of further local community involvement, Yvonne is keen to engage with local choirs, offering songwriting and performance workshops, hoping to culminate in some sort of performance in the Sugar Sheds themselves.
Yvonne’s practice from the beginning has been to embrace the collaborative aspect of this project and pursue a cross pollination of disciplines. For example, very quickly Anne McKay and Yvonne sparked an idea to work together at Whinhill bringing together visual art and songwriting in one mini project. It has been fantastic so far and extremely inspiring. They’ve worked with P4/5 throughout March for two hours a week, splitting a group of 40 pupils in half. They gave them four characters to bring to life through visual art and song, people who would have worked in the sheds around 1900. Anne’s group would decide what they looked like, wore, their environment and they Yvonne’s group would decide what voice to give them. So through this collaboration, they have literally given these Absent Voices a face and voice. The pupils loved both aspects. They’ve written songs based on Gaelic Waulking songs fused with African Slave songs and spirituals, canons (songs in a round), jigs and laments with Gaelic lyrics.
There was a taster of their creations as six of the children sung their very own songs at the pop up event at The Beacon last month. The audience were in awe! Some education people who were there suggested rolling out the project out as a fuller educational initiative! From this, Yvonne hopes to record the children singing with fully produced arrangements of the songs.
The collaborative aspect is so exciting within the group, whether it is composing for Film and poetry with Alastair, recording vocals for Al and Ryan or working with Rod and Kevin, they seem to spark off each other. The pop up event was a real ‘high’ for that. They were beginning to see how each artist of the project was responding to the subject. Creativity begets creativity.
Yvonne recently toured with Eddi Reader. This was a very significant moment in Yvonne’s career to be part of this tour. “So many tiny and massive moments of meaning that an artist can wait a lifetime to experience, ” were part of this experience says Yvonne. However, she has enjoyed coming back to Greenock and realising that she is part of a community of artists, who work and support each other. These artists operate within and for he local community also.
The final words from Yvonne are, “Community responses have been fantastic (as above) but we need to get the word out more. We have such a wealth of artists in Inverclyde and amazing stories to tell. I really hope we can just keep building relationships and ideas and that AV will be a catalyst for more.”