Sharing a New Song
by Anna Stange
“When singing unites people in harmony, friendship and purpose, it can change lives and communities.” – Arlington Advocate
CMN member and Administrative Director Jane Arsham belongs to a choir whose values and mission align so closely with that of CMN, it could be a sister organization. Based in Arlington, Massachusetts, Sharing A New Song (SANS) chorus travels and sings around the world in order to promote better cultural understanding and communication with people in other cultures and countries. SANS also performs at local retirement homes and local festivals as part of its mission of friendship and connectedness through song. They often perform at Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, and at the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Choral repertoire draws on a variety of music: folk, gospel, pop, Broadway, jazz, classical, and songs from the countries they visit. The chorus has sung in English, Spanish, Estonian, Afrikaans, Chinese, Zulu, and many other languages.
MISSION: Sharing A New Song celebrates the human spirit through choral music. Reaching across social and political boundaries to other countries and within the United States, Sharing A New Song promotes intercultural understanding and lasting relationships (SANS 2017).
FUNDING: SANS is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, and members pay yearly dues which help to defray the costs of rehearsals, concerts, administration, and music. Auctions and other fundraisers finance scholarships, and local business partners support the choir by advertising in their concert programs.
HISTORY: SANS was founded in 1983 by high school teacher David Clapp, who was concerned about attitudes toward the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. David’s personal and professional connections initially provided an avenue to share music, and over thirteen years SANS made numerous trips to the Soviet Union, participated in choral and language exchanges, and even was featured in a documentary film produced by both American and Russian filmmakers. Since that time, SANS has expanded its travel to sing for and with people in Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Nicaragua, Romania, Russia, Siberia, South Africa, and Vietnam. They’ve also made repeat trips to the Gullah community of South Carolina and the Houma Indian Nation in Louisiana. In addition, every few years SANS hosts choirs from countries they’ve visited. Visiting choir members stay in the homes of SANS members to help foster meaningful one-on-one relationships.
During my research, SANS was preparing for its sixth trip to South Africa. I spoke with Jane about some of her experiences.
Anna: What is it about SANS that you find meaningful or valuable?
Jane: It’s their mission in action. It’s making connections one to one and group to group, with other countries and other cultures. It’s a real connection.
How long have you been singing with SANS, and what keeps you singing with the chorus?
I first got involved in 1999. The initial draw was a trip to South Africa. It was a transformational experience. We were three weeks in another culture, experiencing it from different perspectives: staying with an Afrikaans family, singing with a gospel choir in a township. We made real connections with people, in rural and urban settings, at an AIDS hospital. I was just blown away by the experience, feeling like you’re a part of the culture, even if only for a few hours.
I sang with another choir for many years and came back to SANS for the 2011–2012 season because I wanted to sing and travel again. I’ve been singing with SANS ever since. We traveled to Colombia and to Cuba. We are going back to South Africa in a few weeks.
And the connections come both ways. Some of the choirs come to Boston to sing. Homestays with SANS members help develop one-on-one connections and friendships. Recently, Vusi Mahlasela (he is often called “The Voice” of South Africa) was here in Somerville, Massachusetts. About fifty of our choir members went to the concert. We filled the place. Joanne Lowry, longtime SANS member, supporter, and travel director, made a connection, and we will sing with him in his church during our upcoming visit to South Africa.
We also develop close friendships within the choir. We will stay in Piketberg, South Africa, for three days. My roommate—my “new best friend”—and I will be sharing a full-size bed. That might be a challenge, but it will be worth it to stay in a home with a family rather than in a hotel or other accommodation. It’s very personal, a rare opportunity.
Jane added that although SANS is an adult choir, they sing with and for children, and everywhere they go, children are singing.
In the 2014 documentary short about the choir, Sharing A New Song: Changing the World One Song at a Time, members share reflections about participating in the chorus. Their feelings mirror Jane’s: they know that they are planting seeds of mutual respect and that they’re making a difference. One recurring theme is that members find there are more positive things happening in the countries visited, and more hope, than is represented in the American media. When they return home, they are able to share these insights with their friends and families.
Though members participate in cultural tourist activities, the trips are designed around music, with opportunities to spend time with and learn about the people they meet. Lining up service projects, educational opportunities, and workshops is part of pre-travel preparation. Each trip is unique: interacting with musicians at rehearsals and attending workshops focused on different musical styles develops musicianship while making connections. Founder David Clapp says, “It’s those kind of spontaneous things that happen in gatherings among two or three choruses where some small group gets up and sings a little duet from their culture. There are wonderful, poignant moments. You never know what’s going to happen.”
From the time Jane first told me about SANS, I felt a kinship to and a desire to learn more about this choir that uses music to “celebrate the human spirit,” reaching across social and political boundaries, within and outside the United States, to foster peace and understanding. Yes, it is a sister to CMN, building a better world through music.