A big thank you to English singer-songwriter, pianist and record producer Gary Barlow for reminding us all that singing is something that we were all born to do. It turns out he ‘was one of those kids that’s forever dancing in front of the TV looking at my reflection* and wanting to Sing.
There is no doubt Gary Barlow, the local boy from the market town of Frodsham in Cheshire enjoyed the pinnacle of his career with Queen Elizabeth 11’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in 2012. It doesn’t really get much better. The only way to become number one however is through total dedication to your craft and by sharing that success with others. In early 2012 Gary Barlow visited some of the countries of the Commonwealth on Her Majesty’s Service.
Unlike his fictional counterpart James Bond, his visit wasn’t a secret, but a sound gathering quest to help he and fellow musician Andrew Lloyd Webber complete a song they called “Sing”, which they had collaborated on to compose. The Queen for her Diamond Jubilee commissioned it especially from them both. Their mission was to capture the sounds of the Queen’s proudest achievement in her lifetime – the Commonwealth.
This was the sensational concert Gary Barlow was also charged with producing for Her Majesty. For Barlow and all those involved in its production the concert must have been a penultimate moment of their stellar careers. Prince Charles personally thanked Barlow for putting it all together so beautifully.
The road trip Barlow went on to find the musicians and singers to supply the sounds to include in ‘Sing’, a song written especially for the Queen, was an incredible journey through the magic of music.
From the uplifting experience of the percussionists playing on home made instruments in the slums of Africa to the pure clear innocent voice of Lydia, the wonder child from the Arican Children’s choir to the performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall at the iconic Sydney Opera House, the program revealed just how much music is an integral aspect of our make up as human beings. And, how important it is for inspiring and motivating us all throughout life.
“The commonwealth is massive”, said Gary as he was endeavouring to work out where to go. The truth he believed came back to giving the record a feel of all nations so that it would sound both rich and full of personality He started in Kenya at Treetops, where Princes Elizabeth was staying the night she found out she was to be Queen.
What an undertaking he observed, for such a young person. He paused there to soak up the environment and its unique atmosphere, while spending time writing the lyrics to the music he and Lord Webber had completed prior to his leaving England.
When he was ready he headed off to visit a remote school in Nairobi where a choir of children were practicing their singing to the sound of two young drummers. He thought that their singing was amazing and asked them about the Queen, of which they were all very knowledgeable.
He told them he was there listening out to hear voices for his record and asked them to try out some harmonies and melodies for him.
When Lydia started to sing he got really excited. She had a beautiful voice and he observed that the little bit of pronunciation differential she brought to her rendition meant that anyone listening would know instantly she wasn’t British.
It is an incredible pure sound Lydia, provides and she features at the lead in and fade out of the song, which ends up being completely mesmerizing. She did not know it at the time, but because of her performance Lydia would also get to travel to England to perform ‘Sing’ at the Queen’s Jubilee concert.
Barlow then moved onto visit a Masai tribe in all their colourful robes and copious jewellery. He couldn’t get over how much of a challenge he had taken on, amazed and confused about how he could find their sounds to include on the record.
Three miles outside Nairobi in one of the biggest slums in Africa, where you experience poverty at its lowest, lowest level, Barlow found a young group of remarkable young enthusiastic percussionists, who call themselves The Slum Drummers. Their instruments were made from litter.
Music is an escape from where they live he observes. It is however the incredible pearls of wisdom spoken by one of the boys that were the most poignant.
Barlow hadn’t realized at first Michael was blind and how music helps him to get up out of bed each day and face whatever life has to throw at him.
When Barlow talked to him Michael had this to say.
“No matter what you go through, no matter what difficulties you have, you still have to stay strong” You don’t have to break down and give up on everything, you have to keep your head up and keep focusing on what you want to do”.
They were incredibly inspiring words and very humbling.
‘Music doesn’t really need words for you to understand it’, reflected Michael at the end of the recording session, ‘and even after we have gone it is a legacy that will not be forgotten’.
Here he is taken off the beaten track to a Rastafarian village high on a mountain above Kingston, where he meets the local musicians and the priest, who explains that the sweetness of the air is because of the altitude.
When their drumming starts he wants to capture a flavour of what they are doing on the record.
Selassie Tafari Makonnen Fagan, the priest’s 12-year-old son, has amazing timing. Equally the priest is impressed with Barlow’s abilities and dedication to his task.
He then meets up with Prince Harry, who was on a community visit in Jamaica where he was having a fabulous time with the locals. Barlow asked his opinion on the sort of music he believed that the Queen would like? ‘If it spans across cultures she will love it’ observes Harry. Barlow records the Prince playing a note on a tambourine to include.
On he flies to Australia, where he is reminded that the Queen is also Australia’s Monarch. Here he went on another local road trip to the Blue Mountains to meet up with Aboriginal singer the incredible Gurrumul, a wonderful musician blind since birth and, as Barlow finds out, has sung for the Queen before.
They sit together on a precipice overlooking a great canyon in the mountains where Gurrumul interprets the music of ‘Sing’ on his classic acoustic guitar. Barlow observes that the meeting in the mountains was one of the most uplifting experiences of his trip.
Among the final tracks to be recorded were with the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House so that the song would have a rich orchestral feel. This is where Gary Barlow himself, played his tracks on the Steinway grand to include.
Truly one of the golden moments that can happen with music.
His last stop was one of the tiny islands in the thousands of islands that make up the Solomon Islands, whose head is also the Queen. It’s not a place where you holiday as it rains so much. But there he records the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force Band, the only one in the country.
They were busy rehearsing for a visit by Kate and William, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for the Diamond Jubilee.
Then he met a local choir that blew him away, a group of singers in the local church who responded quickly and he achieved the results he wanted.
He went for 6 hours on a boat, way off the beaten track where he enjoyed the local hospitality and a feast on a remote Solomon Island. There he encountered a tribe of warriors in a rainforest, who gave him a warm welcome Solomon Islands style. He listened to their music, which was again unique.
Barlow at this point reminded himself that now and then he should just play music for himself, to feed his heart and soul.
This is where he would incorporate all the sounds of the Commonwealth and add something truly British, the sounds of the seventy strong choir of Military Wives who are red, white and blue all the way through.
Conducted by Gareth Malone, a classical music mover and shaker in Britain, the song SING by Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber has now become an anthem, which is about bringing people together to stand shoulder to shoulder and to say a big thanks to the Queen.
A meeting at Windsor Castle with the Queen Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gareth Malone was the last stop on Gary Barlow’s incredible journey.
He wanted to tell her personally about his journey, about the 200 people on the recording and, to play the finished song for her. She thought it was great.
Music is a language we all speak, and no matter where we are and how we live it is something that connects us all.
No one knows that more now than Gary Barlow.
He understands music expresses emotions and ideas that we often cannot express in words, but are shared by many cultures and, in significant forms. Rhythm melody, harmony and colour are all elements contributing to creating an art of sound with music helping us provide an atmosphere wherein calm can prevail in our often tumultuous world.
At the end he noted ‘that he felt very privileged, very honoured and very lucky that we have got to do this and I have got to see what I have seen and heard what I have heard. It will be a part of our lives forever’.
His co writer of the song ‘Sing’ Andrew Lloyd Webber concluded a piece that he wrote for The Telegraph in England by saying.
“Please get round a piano, computer, whatever you use and let’s all sing together in praise of an extraordinary monarch who has kept her faith when many others have wavered”.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012-2013
There’s a place, there’s a time in this life when you sing what you are feeling find your feet,
stand your ground don’t you see right now the world is listening to what we say
Sing it louder, sing it clearer knowing everyone will hear you
Make some noise, find your voice tonight
Sing it stronger, sing together
Make this moment last forever
Old and young
Shouting love tonight
Watch Gary Barlow, the incredible Musicians and Singers of the Commonwealth perform