I'm reading
We belong to each other
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
We belong to each other
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
We belong to each other
Pass it on
Pass it on
7 July 2021

We belong to each other

Danielle Caruana, also known as Mama Kin, shares her passion for choirs and the bonding power of music.

Written by Danielle Caruana

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Mama Kin Spender and the WAAPA Gospel Choir. Photo from Mama Kin Spender website.

I was raised in a devout Catholic Maltese family which, amongst other things, meant church every Sunday morning was a non-negotiable. There were a few things that got me excited about this weekly event:

1. I got to dress up.
2. I got to dress up while my big sisters were also dressing up.
3. I considered myself a bit of a big deal because my brothers and sisters were in the church band. Well, they were the church band. They brought a certain Maltese gospel rock sensibility to our little parish in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.
4. I got to sing. Every week. With pretty much everyone I knew in the whole world, in a huge reverberating space. Our voices became a mesh of something that didn’t exist if we sang alone. You could definitely say I was hooked from an early age.

I would scramble to our seats while trying to maintain a pious air and hurriedly started looking up the four designated weekly songs in the hymnbook. I would do a tiny fold on the corner of the pages, noting to God that although I was damaging church property, I would make up for it in spades with my singing gusto. “You’ll see!” I assured him.

I never disappointed. When my seven-year-old self belted out, “Let us build a city of God… may our tears be turned into dancing,” I meant it with my whole being. I was singing to the whole world for the whole world, right along with the woman who ran the milk bar up the road from our house who sold me five-cent lolly bags, and my Grade 1 teacher, and also my Grade 2 teacher, and my aunties and uncles, and Mum and Dad, and at least seven of my cousins, and that boy in my class who was considered naughty but I thought was actually really funny. All of us, singing together and belonging to each other, for one whole precious hour every week.

Afterwards we would spill out of the church into what I remember as eternal sunshine and hang back, playing chasey in the churchyard as the adults chatted. Somehow it was always hard to leave, like a bond had been formed that no one was in any particular rush to break. In the car on the way home, I remember a serenity sitting deep in my body, a slow surge of peace.

Musician Tommy Spender and I have been friends for some 17 years, and we have always skirted the edges of each other’s creative projects. Two years ago we were both in a lull, lacking a sense of meaning around our creative output and engagement. The reality of touring and releasing contemporary music while holding down relationships, being parents, and making it financially viable was bearing down on us with crushing clarity. But neither of us could deny that making music was central to our beings. We just needed to find a way to do it that felt more meaningful—less about the pursuit of creative validation and more in the riches of community.

We decided to return to what we both love in its most simple form. Writing and singing together. Not outcome driven. Just making songs, and letting them lead. This immediately felt like the balm we both needed. Stop thinking and just get back to the craft. The medicine will surely lie therein.

I had stumbled upon a video of Rufus Wainwright singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with a 1000-strong choir (Choir! Choir! Choir!) in Canada, and I pinged it through to Tommy from my couch in Margaret River, Western Australia, to his in Balnarring, Victoria, some 3646 kilometres apart. We watched the video and within moments were both weeping. We had struck a vein and inadvertently stumbled across a pathway. We tried to understand our immense reaction to this piece. Was it the song? Rufus? The arrangement? We agreed it was all of it, but it was mostly the choir. Their faces, their openness as they threw their voices into that cavernous space with each other for three minutes or so. One movement, one force, belonging to one song and one sentiment unanimously. Belonging to each other.

Then came a flood of ideas. Yes we would continue to create the work as a duo, however we would illuminate the recording with choral arrangements. We immediately knew that we would invite our dear friend and choir master Virginia Bott to be part of this vision. In our conversation we mused that we would tour to choirs. We would no longer swing into a town just to perform to them. By engaging community choirs we would perform with a group of people for their own community.

We have often marvelled at how a really ambitious and logistically challenging idea, discussed and created in a 20-minute conversation, has become the centrepiece of our creative life ever since. We did write those songs, and make that album, and soon enough we were ready to road test that idea. The first time we tried it was for the Bello Winter Music Festival, in Bellingen, New South Wales. We found a local choir (The Spangled Drongos), delivered them all of the materials, and for each of the six weeks leading into the performances they came together for a couple of hours, shared thermoses of tea and rehearsed.

We were feeling quite overwhelmed and nervous when we arrived a day before the show to meet the choir, finesse the works and get performance-ready. We promised the festival director that we were going to deliver a cracking show and yet we had never really tested this, we really didn’t know that it was actually going to work. It was a leap of faith on everyone’s part. I’ll never forget that rehearsal. Tommy, Virginia and I were blown away by the spirit they brought to each song, each phrase, each sigh, each release. Here were 18 members of the Bellingen community, prepared to breathe life into our songs.

We took to the stage at around 6pm on the Saturday night. The town hall was heaving. The performance was incredibly joyous. Those 18 Spangled Drongos surrendered themselves completely to the service of the song. All of us on stage were one movement of intensity, tension and release, love, laughter, grief and humanity. We belonged to each other.

Science has proven that when we sing together in a group, we release a precious hormone called Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone often referred to as the cuddle hormone. It is the hormone that chemically reminds and assures us that we belong to someone, that we belong to a group of people, that we belong to each other. That night, we all got a good dose.

At one stage I asked the audience to please stand if they knew anyone in the choir. Most of the place stood up cheering and hollering, arms raised, and the choir’s beaming faces were more golden than their robes. We had somehow become the vehicle for a community to celebrate itself.

Since that first foray we have worked with choirs everywhere from Perth to Brisbane, Adelaide to Darwin, Melbourne to Mullumbimby and beyond. The thrill has not faded! Every choir is a little different to the next, every town with its own sound. At every show we spill off the stage together into each other’s arms, and somehow it is always hard to leave, like a bond has been formed that no one is in any particular rush to break.

‘Calling all Choirs’ is a national call out to choirs to apply to have Mama Kin Spender come to their community and co-host an event in local town halls. To see Mama Kin Spender in their last shows for 2018 be sure to catch one of their ‘Spring is Golden’ tour dates. For all details about the upcoming shows and to find out more about ‘Calling All Choirs’ go to www.mamakinspender.love 

We’re also wishing Mama Kin Spender a huge congratulations! Their debut album, Golden Magnetic, was nominated for the 2018 ARIA Award for Best Blues and Roots Album—you can watch a clip for a song from the album, entitled Carry Me, below. It was recorded at The White House in St Kilda – Dumbo Feather HQ! 

Danielle Caruana

Danielle Caruana (Mama Kin), is an Australian singer-songwriter. She’s also Dumbo Feather alumni, read her conversation.

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