Quire Belfast Celebrates 10th Birthday in Harmony

Founding member of Northern Ireland's only LGBT choir Duane Farrell reflects on a decade of giving a voice to diversity ahead of 10th birthday celebration on June 6

When was Quire Belfast formed?

Quire Belfast was formed back in April 2005. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a number of people met in Belfast city centre with a shared interest in singing. We had no idea then that ten years later, Quire Belfast would be what it is now.

In those early days, we agreed to perform at that year's Pride festival, and then see if people wanted to continue. Now, ten years later, Quire Belfast has continued to grow and develop.

What songs did you sing during that inaugural Belfast Pride performance?

We had two songs which brought us through our first number of performances, both with a jazz influence. 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' from Show Boat, and Duke Ellington's 'It Don't Mean a Thing'. Our Musical Director (MD) at the time, Evan Ferrar, chose them for us. I think he was taking a pragmatic approach to what he could achieve with a diverse group of people, many of whom had never sung in a choir before.

What songs do you sing now?

One of the interesting things about Quire Belfast is the breadth of our reportoire. We have performed a lot of genres from bluegrass, country and western, Irish traditional ballads and show tunes to more contemporary pop music as well.

Our members have very different musical tastes, so when we make suggestions for new songs to sing, a lot of different ideas come forward. I think as an LGBT choir, people might have particular expectations of what we will sing, and we enjoy surprising the people we perform to.

How many people are in the choir?

Quire Belfast started with about 12 or 14 original members, most of whom were men. Over the last ten years, and through the effort of all involved, we now have about 35 members, with a far stronger mix of men and women. That diversity is great, not only for the sound we produce, but also in terms of how we reflect the community we come from.

Where do the singers come from, and are they amateur/professional, or a bit of both?

Most of us are amateur singers, and for many (including me), performing with Quire Belfast was their first time singing outside of the shower. However, some of our members have performed musically, both singing and playing instruments, before they came to Quire Belfast. That mix has been brilliant and helped us to grow and develop.

Why does NI need an LGBT choir?

I think we all look for reflections of ourselves in the world around us. So for LGBT people who are discovering the LGBT community in NI, it's great that that they can see running groups, charities, activist spaces and groups like Quire.

As well as Quire's role as part of the LGBT community, I think we also play a positive role outside of the LGBT community. Northern Ireland is a society in which there are a spectrum of views on being LGB and/or T.

It's important that spaces like the Arts can not only reflect the diversity of our communities in NI, but also through those representations, create inclusive spaces where something like a love of music and performance can bring people together and challenge some of those views.

Do you have an agenda to redefine the sanctity of choirs?

I don't think we want to re-define the sanctity of choirs at all. There is a long history of LGBT choirs across the world.

Just last year, we joined nearly 100 LGBT choirs from across the world at the Various Voices festival in Dublin and we got a great response from members of the public when we sang in the streets across Dublin city centre. For us, music is a medium that allows us to engage members of our community and also the wider public in NI.

When we formed Quire Belfast, we discussed what role we saw for the group, and many felt that we could play a positive role in empowering LGBT people and educating the wider public about the LGBT community. There are great organisations in NI who work hard to support LGBT people and lobby on behalf of the community. Quire Belfast can add to that through our performances.

One highlight for me was singing at Holocaust Memorial Day a number of years ago. Very often, what happened to LGBT people during The Holocaust is not known or understood. Quire being part of that event was such an important way to recognise what happened to thousands of men and women in those concentration camps.

Where have you performed over the years, and what has been the highlight?

Too many highlights to choose one. Our most recent highlight was getting the opportunity to be part of Take That's recent concerts in Belfast as volunteer cast. It was a great experience to be part of.

I've already mentioned the Various Voices festival in Dublin last year, and we also got to be part of the Land of Giants show on the Titanic Slipway during the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. It involved performing in front of 10,000 people, and was such a great experience.

But we also get to do smaller stuff. We recently got involved in a concert in north Belfast which was held to raise awareness and funds around the issue of suicide. In light of the evidence about the impact of poor mental health and suicide in the LGBT community, it was great to be part of that event.

We've also sung at people's weddings and civil partnerships. We've had so many great experiences through being in Quire, and I fully expect our 10th birthday concert will be right up there with those memories.

What has the response from the NI public been to the choir?

We've had such a brilliant response from the NI public. We've performed at Culture Night in Belfast for the last number of years, and it really is such a great night where we feed off the energy of those who stop in the streets to listen to us sing. I have to say, in all of my 10 years of performing with Quire, I've never had a bad reaction from members of the public. It's encouraging to see how far NI has come over the last ten years.

You're celebrating 10 years in the business with a special concert in Newtownabbey on June 6. What can audiences expect?

Audiences can expect a great night. I think this will be Quire's most demanding performance to date. While singing is obviously the heart of what we do, we have put a lot of effort into the staging of the performance, and the story being told throughout the show.

Also, Gloria, Dublin's LGBT choir is joining us on the night, so there will be lots to enjoy. Finally, the amazing Gemma Hutton is compering the concert as a whole, so you can guarantee laughter and craic.

Why Newtownabbey? 

Quire have always been keen to perform outside of Belfast. So far, we have sung in Foyle and Newry which have both been really great opportunities to bring our performances to audiences outside of Belfast. This is another opportunity to try and reach new audiences.

Theatre at The Mill at Mossley is also a great venue for us. At our last concert in Belfast, we sold out The MAC. The Mill is a slightly larger venue, which means we can reach even more people.

Do LGBT arts help to progress LGBT rights?

Yes. I believe that Arts are a hugely important way of progressing LGBT rights. For Quire, that is about eduating the public through our performances. If you look at the recent votes on equal marriage in places like Westminster and further away in New Zealand, LGBT choirs and performances have provided a musical backdrop to those important votes.

When LGBT visibility is still such an important issue in Northern Ireland, LGBT-themed arts and performers are a means of creating a diverse visibility of the LGBT community here.

With recent events in mind, NI has inevitably been tarred in the global media as a backwater, a place where the LGBT community is undervalued, persecuted, denied equality. How can we change this?

There are so many ways to change that. The LGBT organisations and activists who work across communities are such an important route of promoting equality and respect, and challenging laws and policies that seek to being about undermine, rather than promote equality.

We think that Quire can also be part of that work in a very different way, by bringing about increased visibility, empowering members of our own community and by educating the wider public about the breadth and diversity of the LGBT community in NI.

What's next in the diary?

After our 10th birthday concert on June 6 a well-earned breather! But not for long - Quire Belfast will be performing at Belfast Pride 2015 at the beginning of August. We also have private performances at a wedding and a civil partnership over the summer. It's such a pleasure and a privilege to provide the musical entertainment at a couple's special day.

Quire Belfast celebrates its 10th birthday at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on Saturday, June 6. For more LGBT events across Northern Ireland or events in Newtownabbey visit our What's On section.