Choir Attracts Singers From LA's Skid Row
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for choirs. Los Angeles has a small new choir whose members are doing a lot more than raising their voices, they are also raising their lives. Gloria Hillard brings us this story from LA's Skid Row.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: We are in a small, brightly-lit conference room at the John Wesley Community Health Institute. It is where the Colburn Wesley Project singers rehearse.
WESLEY COLBURN SINGERS: (Singing) You kiss the face of God. Mary, did you know...
HILLARD: For the five women and two men of this choir, this room is not just an unlikely rehearsal space - it's a sanctuary from their regular lives, says choir director Linda Evans.
LINDA EVANS: In the choir you can see and hear and feel the best of humanity as opposed to the chaos, the madness, the drug addiction, the filth, the death that's down here.
HILLARD: And down here just outside this room past a couple of security guards, you'll hear a less harmonious sound - the streets of LA's Skid Row.
EVANS: Some of our choir members actually live on the street, and maintaining existence for them is extremely hard. They get up off the sidewalk and they come to rehearsal.
HILLARD: Evans herself lives on Skid Row in a small apartment. The statuesque 64-year-old is a former solo artist and backup singer.
EVANS: I was with The Supremes for a while. I sang with Mary Wilson and traveled to England and places like that. Then I sang with The Platters and traveled to Japan and Korea.
HILLARD: Evans's new gig is somewhat of a miracle itself. A couple of chance meetings led her to another musician, Leeav Sofer, a young 24-year-old music teacher at the esteemed Colburn School of Music, located just blocks from the rehearsal space. From behind the keyboard, Sofer gives them vocal training and inspiration.
LEEAV SOFER: So don't do the usual lines. It's like usually, (singing) Christmas - but it's, (singing) Christmas for me.
The wonderful people down here are no different than anyone else in so many ways, and that's been something I've been discovering.
HILLARD: It was a little rough at first. For people on the street, it can be difficult to make rehearsals. Some members left. Others came on board, and then one day, Sofer says, there was harmony.
SOFER: I think I saw it more and more as they saw that we're just as committed to them as we want them to be committed to us. They definitely want to be heard. They want their voices to be heard.
HILLARD: One of those voices belongs to 60-year-old James Walton.
JAMES WALTON: (Singing) Fireside's blazing bright. We're caroling through the night.
WALTON: I started playing classical piano when I was five.
HILLARD: Walton sang gospel and then R and B in the clubs. But then...
WALTON: In and out of prison. So finally I just at this point, this last time, I decided, well, you know something's got to change.
WALTON: (Singing) As I look around, your eyes outshine the town. They do.
WALTON: You know, getting them chops back after you've been doing so much is hard, but I'm going to stick with the choir, yeah, come what may.
HILLARD: The choir's debut performance earlier this year had been for a black-tie fundraiser in a downtown high-rise.
HILLARD: On this night, on a small stage they are performing for their neighbors, at a shelter on Skid Row.
WALTON: (Singing) It's going to be a very special Christmas for me, yeah.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
HILLARD: In the audience a woman dressed for church sang along during the concert. She's new to Skid Row and hopes to join the choir. For NPR News I'm Gloria Hillard.
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