19 Jan 2022
Image of Thanda Gumede sitting on a sofa.

A Song for West Yorkshire – Q&A with Thanda Gumede

Sound UK has commissioned Thanda Gumede and Boff Whalley, in partnership with Opera North, to write a new song inspired by the people of West Yorkshire.

Ahead of the premiere on 2 February 2022, we caught up with Thanda Gumede to find out more about the new song, Looking Out, Reaching Out, and Thanda’s connections to West Yorkshire.

Can you tell us about your links to West Yorkshire and what it means to you?

I live in West Yorkshire but I am originally from Durban, South Africa. My best friend’s grandfather is Obed Mlaba, the former Mayor of  Durban who was behind the twining of Durban and Leeds. The West Yorkshire sister city of Leeds is home to me because of the long standing ties and links.

Can you tell us about the inspiration for your song for West Yorkshire?

When I met with my co-collaborator, Boff Whalley, we were both in agreement that we didn’t want to typically write about the fields or anything people can easily find on Google. We wanted to dig deeper. As a migrant worker I personally felt reticent of 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 judicious and befitting route.

We crafted some questions that were disseminated across the county by Opera North and Sound UK. We wanted to focus on the beauty of West Yorkshire panoramically viewed and interconnected with the beauty of the world at large – on what connects us to it all. We wanted to look outward and to reach out instead of disconnected beauty.

This was especially significant because we were undergoing a  lockdown and felt separated from the whole world. While we recognised the beauty of our home, we still longed for connections with other parts of the world. Finally, we found out that Keighley in Bradford holds the record of the first twinning agreement in the world. Boff and I ended up discovering more twin cities and started running with that theme.

This has been an incredibly difficult time we’re all living through. What have you learnt about yourself in the last 22 months? What keeps you positive? And how important has creativity and music been to you?

Music kept me sane and gave me purpose. Through music I was able to connect with so many people around the world.

So many people were suffering but singing with my choir in Otley (remotely) helped me connect with senior citizens who may have been neglected. That alone gave me purpose. I would have phone “concerts” with those who couldn’t access zoom and also globally streamed performances with amazing organisations across the UK. We were able to raise over £400,000 towards Covid relief. This helped to ameliorate the sense of helplessness given everything that was happening in the world.

A Song for Us encourages creativity in everyone. Do you have any tips or words of encouragement for people wanting to create their own song?

Dare to be intuitive rather than mechanical. Express what you need to say without worrying about being technical – the song doesn’t have to be written in a day so there is no use harshly judging unfinished work.

Just focus on how you feel and try to sum it up in one word themes. Then gradually get your music to express just that as you gradually refine them using poetic and musical devices at your own pace.

The public are also encouraged to share their favourite tracks to the music map, tracks that comfort, celebrate, commemorate or simply sum up this time. What track would you choose and why?

It is so hard to pick one! Probably Smile by Kirk Franklin and Here Come the Sun by The Beatles. These are two of the songs I listened to the most during the lockdowns.

Can you tell us about the local musicians performing your new song and how these collaborations came about?

We are working with two choirs: the Commoner’s Choir, which is led by my co-collaborator Boff, and Harmony, a cross-community choir from Burmantofts led by Frances Bernstein. They are amazing choirs and it is a really diverse group of people with ties in the UK and across the globe. They will lend authenticity to the heart of the song and they are also technically adept.

Looking Out Reaching Out – A Song for West Yorkshire – will be available online from 2 February 2022 (12.30pm) on the Song for West Yorkshire county page.

Find out more about Thanda Gumede on his website.