Songs” is no different. Last December, the group—-an affiliate of the Labor Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen the labor movement through music and the arts—-sang the famous socialist, communist, and anarchist anthem “L’Internationale” in its original French. This Saturday at the Takoma Park Community Center, they’ll belt it out in Arabic—-in solidarity with the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond.
Each chorus member chooses a song for the concert, so many other pieces will be sung in English. On the docket are such tunes as Pete Seeger’s “Get up and Go,” the Irish revolutionary song “Avenging and Bright,” “Occupy Wall Street” (with original lyrics sung to the tune of “On Broadway”), and “Solar Carol,” about solar power. The Alaska-themed tune “Aurora Borealis” has no particular labor angle, but Don Pelles, a longtime tenor in the chorus, promises that it is beautiful.
“Aurora Borealis” isn’t Pelles’ personal choice, though: “L’Internationale” is, both this year and last. Pelles wanted to sing the song in French to frame it in its larger context. This year, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to overthrow tyrannical regimes in the Arab world, he felt the chorus should honor them. “Many have sacrificed their lives and are continuing to do so,” he said. “I felt it was important to sing the anthem in Arabic.”
Pelles tracked down Zeina Azzam, Outreach Director for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and a Palestinian-American fluent in Arabic, to help with the transliteration of the song. “You can find ‘L’Internationale’ in Arabic on the Internet,” he says, “but none of us could read the script!” Azzam transliterated the lyrics into Latin letters and attended a rehearsal in which she led the chorus through correct pronunciation. “They seemed thrilled with the idea of singing it in Arabic,” she said.
Azzam points to connections between the Arab uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement, noting that the Labor Chorus’ choice to sing “L’Internationale” in Arabic is a reflection of how progressives in the United States are being inspired by people in the Arab world. “Forces are coalescing,” she says, “between socialists, perhaps like some in the chorus, the Occupy movement, which is largely a younger demographic, and just everyday people who have not been politically active but are waking up.”
“It’s definitely the start of something,” says Pelles of the Occupy movement. “It’s hopeful and very inspiring.” Though the chorus often sings at rallies, demonstrations, and picket lines, they haven’t sung at Occupy D.C.—-yet. Chorus director Elise Bryant says the group plans to take their songs to the D.C. Occupy encampments and serenade them this holiday season. This may be a perfect outlet for Pelles, who notes that he has been talking with friends about how to relate to the movement as an older American (Pelles is 68). “I don’t want to get in a tent and sleep in McPherson Square,” he laughs. “I’d risk my life, but I don’t want to do that.”
“An Evening of Favorite and Sacred Songs” begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Takoma Park Community Center auditorium. Admission is free.
Watch the D.C. Labor Chorus’ “Health Care-ols” from 2010: