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Thanda and Boff's song for West Yorkshire

Created by West Yorkshire-based composers Boff Whalley (Chumbawamba) and Thanda Gumede, a new song inspired by the county and its inhabitants will be recorded in the Howard Assembly Room and premiered online on Wednesday 2 February 2022.

A Song for West Yorkshire: Looking Out, Reaching Out is one of 14 ‘County Songs’ specially written for Sound UK’s A Song for Us project. Co-commissioned by Opera North, it will be recorded in front of a live audience in our beautiful chamber venue over the coming weeks. The two composers will be joined by local ensembles Harmony, a cross-community choir from Burmantofts, and Commoners Choir – the “peculiar, feisty, celebratory, witty, angry and inclusive” collective founded in Leeds by Boff.

Looking Out, Reaching Out emerged from words written by people from across the county, as Boff explains: “We asked people some simple questions about their connections to West Yorkshire and what that means to them. We asked them how they think West Yorkshire connects to the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world comes into this county to influence it”.

“We wanted a song that wasn’t just inward-looking, but that reached out to the world, a song that was inclusive and welcoming, that put West Yorkshire into a context of the planet and its people”, he says. Born in Burnley, Boff moved to Leeds to study at the University in 1981, formed anarcho-punks Chumbawamba the following year, and has spent most of his life in the city since. After 25 years of recording and touring with the band, he embarked on a career as a writer of plays, large-scale community musicals, and books about another of his passions: fell-running around Leeds and beyond.

His co-writer, singer, composer and educator Thanda is originally from Durban, the city in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa with its own surprising ties with West Yorkshire: “My best friend’s grandfather is Obed Mlaba, the former Mayor of Durban, who was behind the twinning of Durban and Leeds in 1999”, he says.

Thandanani Gumede performing at Slung Low in Holbeck © Tom Arber

“Boff and I we were in agreement that we wanted our song to dig deep. As a migrant worker I personally felt reticent about speaking for the natives of God’s Own Country. So reaching out to the people of West Yorkshire to ask them what West Yorkshire means to them felt like a fitting route to take”.

Looking Out, Reaching Out also reflects on the pandemic that has kept us all homebound: “We were undergoing a lockdown and felt separated from the whole world”, Thanda says. “Music kept me sane and gave me purpose: through it, I was able to connect with so many people around the world. So many were suffering, but singing remotely with my choir in Otley helped me to connect with senior citizens who may have been neglected. I would stream performances globally with amazing organisations across the U.K to raise money towards Covid relief, and have phone ‘concerts’ with those who couldn’t access Zoom”.

Alongside A Song for West Yorkshire, Sound UK has commissioned 14 other County Songs for A Song for Us, from artists including Gavin Bryars (the East Riding), This Is The Kit and Bucky (Bristol) and Gwenno (Cornwall). The tracks form part of a growing music map of the country to mark the time of the pandemic.

There are opportunities for everyone to contribute to the map by creating and upload original songs that capture their experience of the pandemic, or by sharing songs that have meant something special over the period. A vast range of songs has already been shared, with original compositions ranging from an account of what it’s to be a teenager today, to a celebration of the power of music to make us smile; from a 90-year-old’s “thank you” to his exercise instructor, to a song about dreaming of future hugs.

Maija Handover, Director, Sound UK, comments:

“A Song for Us celebrates our communities during the COVID 19 pandemic and beyond. It seeks to encapsulate the coming together and solidarity. It recognises the nationwide losses we have experienced, whether at a distance or personally. Above all it celebrates the power of music to bring us together, whether as creators, performers or listeners.”

Jo Nockels, Projects Director, Opera North, adds:

“We are delighted to be working on this commission with Thanda, whose blend of Zulu, jazz and gospel influences make him such a unique composer. Having met him three years ago through our Resonance artist support residencies, it has been great to introduce him to Boff, whose work in Leeds communities has become legendary. Together they have created a song that is powerfully outward-looking and richly local at the same time.

“Our co-commission for A Song For Us is the latest of Opera North Projects’ initiatives during the pandemic, which have included a series of Lockdown Resonance residencies in support of music-makers; a set of downloadable sound walks for BBC Sounds; and an in-person headphone walk around Leeds commissioned from the cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe. For A Song for West Yorkshire, we’re excited to be working with Thanda, Boff and members of the wider community to reflect on this extraordinary period.”

To see the premiere of A Song for West Yorkshire: Looking Out, Reaching Out, head to the website at 12.30pm on Wednesday 2 February. The song will be available to watch for 12 months after its release.


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