Imperfect voices come together to convey one genuine message  | L.S., Jordanian frown, The People's Choir, Toleen Touq, Ahmad Zotari
Imperfect voices come together to convey one genuine message Print
Along with the infamous reputation of the "Jordanian frown", Jordanians have been long described as people who "bear never-ending complaints". Ironically, the "The People's Choir" has capitalized on that specific ability to complain. Although the group, consisting of 22 and 30 participants in the first and second performances respectively, complained about hosting issues that shape the life of an average Jordanian, these complaints were being channeled through a "creative medium" rather than a "violent act".

"This was another form of self-expression, we had negative energy but we were releasing it in creativity, so the equation is creativity Vs violence, and we favored the former", says Toleen Touq, a cultural curator who co-founded of the choir.
After seeing the Egyptian version of the choir, Touq thought about creating a Jordanian version and bring people together to voice their grievances and complaints. While the idea preceded the Arab Spring, it was the outbreak of revolutions in Arab countries that encouraged Touq and her colleagues to take a step forward.

"I believe the Arab Spring has made us all more confident and courageous, we have felt an overwhelming sense of self-confidence and we were then ready to start working on the choir", explains Touq. She contacted Ahmad Zotari, a Jordanian journalist who was preparing for the Music Freedom Day then, and decided to launch the event.

The choir needed a small fund to get started and it was easy to find people who were passionate about cultural creativity in Amman. "I sent a Jordanian businessman an email and explained our idea. Only two days later his secretary called me and told me to pick up the cheque", says Touq, adding that the preparations and the rehearsals were all carried out within 10 days.

Imperfect voices come together to convey one genuine message  | L.S., Jordanian frown, The People's Choir, Toleen Touq, Ahmad Zotari
People came in large numbers to the workshop, where they brainstormed for topics, composed lyrics and put them together in musical tunes. The very first question that participants faced, according to Touq, was "what bothers you the most? What complaints do you have?"
The answers tackled common problems including corruption, public freedoms, the façade of democracy as opposed to a genuine democracy, Amman's identity and nepotism. The group also tackled manifestations of gender bias and incidents that the majority of Jordanians can identify with.

During the workshops, females often complained about a male-dominated society, where the woman has to have a guardian, be it her father, brother or husband. Women also vented their anger with a mindset that does not recognize their performance at work, even if they excel in their careers, simply because "we are women".

On the other hand, males complained about the rising costs of living, their endless journeys to make ends meet and the gender bias that they encounter, albeit it may appear less harmful. On the other side of the coin, university students often complained about the fact that taxis do not stop to pick them up when they are all alone and do not have a female companion.

The workshops were very intense, with a large flow of complaints discussed and put in creative lyrics. All of the complaints were important to the participants and they all shaped their lives, but "we had to exclude some complaints due to lack of space or if they do not fall in place with the other musical tunes". Any complaint, excluded from the final version and the songs, was musically incorrect rather than politically. Touq explained that "we did not have any kind of self-censorship, although we had an incident where we had to ask ourselves if we wanted to censor or just keep going, and we voted for the latter".

Touq recalls that some participants suggested taking out words that could have led to interrogation or any sort of interference by the security apparatus, a long-feared entity according to Jordanian standards. However, the group voted for keeping the lyrics that spoke their minds, as "this was the whole point beyond the choir, which is raising the bar of freedom of speech, pushing the limits further and not restricting our freedom".
In her opinion, the choir was "a microcosm of democracy", as a real intense debate took place between the participants and it did not always see a consensus. For example, one of the songs of the choir tackled the proposed amendments of the constitution. While preparing for the song, a participant warned against this specific part and thought that the group should not call for amending the constitution.

The next day, another participant printed out copies of the proposed amendments, as outlined by a political movement advocating for changes, and distributed the copies so that "the group could be informed and then decide". The participant who opposed addressing the amendments did not change his mind, but he did join the group and stayed, as the group was in favour of including the phrase.

It was this concept of "disagreeing and respecting the will of the majority" that also made the experience remarkable. According to Touq, the initial number of participants was large in the beginnings, but it kept changing with many dropping out and others inviting their friends to join.
"We start and then we filter, there are people who do not have time, there are others who cannot work in groups and there are some who simply cannot tolerate debate," explains Touq, citing an incident when an attendant left the room and could not bear with "the never-ending" complaints of the group.

Imperfect voices come together to convey one genuine message  | L.S., Jordanian frown, The People's Choir, Toleen Touq, Ahmad Zotari
It was a "microcosm of democracy" applied within a "microcosm of society", as the group gathered people from all walks of life. Artists, students, musicians, people who had no experience in music and people who did not have "a singing talent" were all coming together to sing in an imperfect voice that, ironically, captured perfectly their concerns and emotions.

"We had people who were in their forties and we had a fifteen-year-old participant, there were no restrictions and no selection process, it was entirely open for all," says Touq, who worked in collaboration with Ahmad Zotari, the co-founder of the choir, and Salam Yusry, an Egyptian artist who facilitated the workshops.

While the audience interacted with all of the songs, some particular topics drew the attention and applause of the attendants, as they felt a "personal connection". After the first performance last March, some people approached the organizers to say they "loved the lyrics" of "the identity's song" that explore the identity of the city through the common question "where are you from?", a question that every resident of the city must have been asked. As the first initial answer is never enough, the lyrics keep on digging to reach the "very origins of your grandfather" to know where you are "actually from". In the real debate, a lot of people find it hard to comprehend that people are "from Amman" and do not recognize an "Ammani identity". Therefore, the song brought up the question of identity in a very humorous and simple way, forcing people to reconsider their concepts.

At the end of the day, it is not a demonstration or an article or a choir that make all the difference. It is not one method of expression that makes a real change. As the organizers believe, all of these methods can be carried out simultaneously but "we cannot deny that this is a powerful representative medium in which real people, as opposed to politicians, express their demands".

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1) - People who did not have a singing talent performed in the choir, provided that they had something to say. Photo Courtesy: the group's page on facebook.
2) - The group performed in public spaces in Amman and looks forward to performing in other venues in other parts of the Kingdom. Photo Courtesy: Alghad newspaper