Express Yourself – a choir with a difference sings about things that get under our skin
In the midst of the freedom of expression explosion that is Edinburgh’s yearly Fringe Festival, one little choir is seizing their democratic rights to vent their spleen at what most annoys them.
The Complaints Choir is an international community choir project. It is the brainchild of Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen who, on a winter’s day in Helsinki, wondered how they might tap the enormous amount of energy people invest in complaining. It might not generate electricity or heat exactly, but the global response to their idea has since shown that they were on to something powerful.
Since the first performance in Birmingham in 2005, choirs have sprung up all over the world: from Chicago to Hong Kong, Buenos Aires to Tokyo and St. Petersburg. I first joined one in my hometown of Auckland, New Zealand four years ago. Now happily settled in Edinburgh, I felt I’d accumulated enough material to belt out my pet peeves with the rest of the locals.
The Complaints Choir of Edinburgh harmoniously gripes about Festival flyering (“Get your flyers out of my face”), Edinburgh’s never-ending tram-works (“Pointless trams!”), and the universal human tragedy of inconsiderate dog owners littering the city with animal mess.
The choir is a bit of fun and a chance to gracefully let off some steam, but complaining is also supremely democratic, and organised whinging even more so. Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees “the right to freedom of expression […] in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice”. The right to air your grievances in public is a human right whatever form it may take.
If you are in any doubt about the power of organised complaining, Singapore’s government actually tried to ban it.
In 2008, just as performances were about to begin, the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) banned all foreign nationals from performing in the Singaporean Complaints Choir. The government’s Media Development Authority explained that because lyrics touched on “domestic affairs,” it preferred only Singaporeans take part. As the choral director, Wai Lun Chong, was a Malaysian citizen, this amounted to a de facto ban of the project.
After much media backlash, the choir was eventually able to arrange a debate in the Singaporean Parliament, but to no avail. Mica Senior Minister of State, Balaji Sadasivan, defended the Ministry’s decision saying: “Part of our branding is the law and order we have. […] This is part of our reputation and it’s not a bad part of our brand value.”
I don’t know what Singaporean Ministers want to achieve with their “brand value” but banning a group of dissenting singers is a clear violation of freedom of expression rights – plus, what’s more lawful and orderly than a choir? In the end, it just goes to show the power of the Complaints Choir and the human value of the universal urge to complain.
The Complaints Choir of Edinburgh will be performing throughout August
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.