Story by Bradley Turcotte
When Phyllis Kessler went to scope out a rehearsal of the Just Voices choir, the Kitchissippi resident found merry comfort in hearing the opening bars of the 1953 holiday standard, Santa Baby.
Then the alto vocal range singer noticed the unexpected lyrics “bring some tofu home for me” and knew she wanted to join this ensemble.
Founded in 2004, Just Voices combines love of song, passion for the environment and social justice into performances that strive to raise awareness and enact positive change.
Headed by music director Jean Winter and facilitated by a volunteer board, Just Voices’ repertoire includes original works. The choir has also reworked existing compositions to address societal issues and performs socially conscious songs like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, O Siem by Susan Aglukark and Amanda Rheaume’s Red Dress, dedicated to murdered and missing indigenous women.
Past collaborators include Pastors for Peace, Ottawa Riverkeeper and ODOWA Ottawa Native Friendship Centre. Just Voices backed hip-hop artist Cody Coyote on his 2017 track Someday.
The collective raises funds for various charities through a pay-what-you-can system. Recipients of Just Voices’ philanthropic efforts include the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Kitchissippi resident and soprano Eva Schacherl found the group by searching #resistnetwork.
“We have written and sung a lot of songs about sustainability, climate change and, especially around Christmas, alternatives to consumerism,” Eva says. “We had fun at the last concert singing Tom Lehrer’s ‘Pollution’.”
Another influential tune the group performs is Everything is Possible. Just Voices partners with queer women’s choir In Harmony to deliver a message of acceptance that heralds back to the 1970s.
“It is sung to youth and children to say be whoever you want to be. It is an anthem for LGBTQ rights,” Eva says.
Members of this fired-up faction also belong to CANDOR, Coalition Against Nuclear Dumps on the Ottawa River, and Just Voices storms Parliament Hill to perform in protest.
“When we are at a demonstration or event, we do encourage others. If they recognise a song, they can join in. If they don’t, they can still be inspired,” Eva says. “We help to bring that energy to protest events. Our own members form community. We are building community as a group. We support each other as well.”
For alto and Kitchissippi local Maggie Simpson, her “newbie” status meant she had to work hard when she joined the ranks. The friendly reception from Just Voices members was a deciding factor in sticking with the group. In a previous choir, Maggie received shade for a momentary lapse in tonality.
“[In Just Voices] it is not like that at all. There is support in this group,” Maggie observes.
The choir typically performs in acoustic-rich churches but Just Voices is a secular organization. That’s why they perform solstice concerts.
“It is about the earth, coming back to our love of the earth and wanting to protect it,” Eva clarifies.
Kitchissippi native and bass Aaron Spector says Just Voices’ winter solstice concert will feature “beautiful music that comes from different parts of the world.”
In the past, the group has sung Chilean protest songs and arrangements against the American embargo of Cuba.
“People connect with different harmonies. It is a diverse experience that gives you a taste of what freedom and helping the earth means from different perspectives,” Aaron says.
One of Aaron’s favourite songs, by German Bertolt Brecht, warns against the implementation of automation. Aaron says the decades-old composition has relevance today.
“The past election has brought up issues that we are singing about,” Maggie says. “It will strike a chord with people.”
Just Voices rehearse 7 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Bronson Centre and invite prospective, like-minded crooners to attend.
The choir will be performing its winter solstice concert, with special guests Doreen Stevens and Sally Robinson, on December 13, 7 p.m. at the Church of the Ascension on Echo Drive.
The Just Voices choir are preparing for their winter solstice concert. Photo courtesy Just Voices
Kitchissippi residents and Just Voices members Maggie Simpson, Aaron Spector, Eva Schacherl and Phyllis Kessler will be serenading the audience at the Church of the Ascension on December 13 at their winter solstice concert. Photo by Bradley Turcotte
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