Roots Alive tour to Chemnitz
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Roots Alive is the City of Leeds Youth Folk Group. It is run by ArtForms Music (part of Leeds City Council’s Children and Families Directorate). This is a guest blog written by Stephen Wild, the Head of Music at Artforms, and various young members of the Roots Alive group. It tells of their recent visit to Chemnitz in Germany, including an unexpected turn of events.
In August 2018 the Roots Alive group travelled by train, to Chemnitz, Germany. The visit, supported by the British Council’s UK / Germany season, was to bring together like minded young people and professional music educators from both cities to collaborate on a sharing of musical styles, ideas and pedagogical methods, leading to a prestigious joint performance on the main stage of Chemitz’s Stadtfest.
The trip was funded through family contributions and funds raised by the young musicians of Leeds themselves through performances over two years. The visit was generously hosted by the Städische Musikschule in Chemnitz and the families of the host musicians.
Nine young musicians travelled, supported by two members of staff and a volunteer.
The exchange stared with a series of workshop performances in schools in Chemnitz, followed by a shared performance at the Städtische Musikschule (city music school), which was wonderful. All involved played and sang beautifully, and the audience was very appreciative.
The main event, sadly, had to be cancelled. Following a tragic violent crime, the Stadtfest was abandoned before the concert could take place, and the city saw marches and protests from right wing groups. These, together with counter demonstrations, made the city centre an unsafe place to perform. The young musicians, the staff and host families were all safe throughout, but the images of violence were upsetting to all. Leeds and Chemnitz staff responded with a high degree of professionalism.
Both sets of young people were upset by this unexpected turn of events. We are very grateful to our hosts for arranging a shared performance at very short notice, and it was wonderful to see and hear how taking part in shared music making allowed both sets of young musicians to bond together, to support each other and to celebrate shared values of inclusion and friendship.
Although one of the key activities of the trip didn’t happen, the trip was very much a success. Musicians from both cities shared their ideas, became friends and realised how much, through music, they shared. The two institutions (ArtForms in Leeds and the Städtische Musikschule in Chemnitz) will continue their professional relationship, and young musicians from Leeds and Chemnitz will perform together in Leeds in 2019.
Student members of Roots Alive were asked to contribute their thoughts and impressions of the trip. Here are three responses, making reference to their enjoyment of the trip, their response to the disruption of plans and a reflection on the very nature of folk music itself.
I’m sitting on a train as I reflect on a tour in Chemnitz, Germany. A train has the potential to transport a person from one country to another, where one might be in a state of peace and the other might be on the verge of disaster. Very fortunately, I am sat on a train travelling between Germany and Britain – not to North Korea. On this tour to Germany with the Leeds folk band, Roots Alive, it is difficult to have enough appreciation for the place of safety and peace that we are travelling from and to. Even when worrying unrest came about, in the form of political demonstrations (and latterly, riots) in Chemnitz and Dresden, we had the innate confidence that we were safe – both due to the incredible guidance and care from the tour leaders (Ruth and Stephen Wild, Hannah Rosebury and Nancy Gibson), but also from the circle of peace that we are unknowingly encompassed in and take far too much for granted, in our Western society.
Our trip consisted of immense highlights (sharing folk music and dance with students in Chemnitz and getting so much joy from it) and sadly, significant lowlights (the political riots which led to the cancellation of our biggest and most important concert in the annual ‘Stadtfest’). However, what I hope everyone deeply appreciates is the inclusivity and friendship that music evokes, building bridges rather than walls between different cultures.
Laura Sutcliffe – aged 17
After four tiresome train journeys, we finally reached Leipzig where we would board our last train. As the band squeezed into the Hogwarts-style compartment, Rachel began began to quietly hum a little melody. Recognising it, we all gradually joined in until the whole band had their instruments out. We played all sorts of traditional music ranging from English to Chinese. While in full swing, two police officers peered in. As opposed to to telling us to stop, they grinned and carried on their way.
The rest of the journey flew by and before we knew it we had arrived ready to meet our host families and continue our musical journey in Chemnitz.
Róisín Howitt – aged 14
The first day of our trip began at the Red Tower, a landmark in Chemnitz’s city centre, and one of it’s few remaining buildings from before World War II. The rest of Chemnitz’s centre, we learnt, had been destroyed in 1945, and the buildings around us were all new. This reconstruction began in the 1960s and is still taking place to this day. In fact, the city has even had a new name, Karl-Marx-Stadt, which was used between 1953 and 1990.
Later in the week, we visited the bigger, nearby city of Dresden and found that it had a similar story to tell, as over 90% of Dresden was destroyed in the war. However, it also became apparent that the two cities have reacted to this devastation (and need for reconstruction) in different ways: the demand for housing in post-war Chemnitz had taken priority over the preservation and recreation of old buildings, and hence, the city looks unusually new. However, the buildings in Dresden looked old. For example, to the uneducated eye, the Dresden Frauenkirche (a church that stands tall in the ‘Neumarkt’ square) looks at least a few hundred years old. But, like so many of the buildings in Dresden, it was first completed in the 1700s, was destroyed in the war, and then has been rebuilt to be within an inch of its original design and finished in 2003.
In scratching the surface of this history, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an old quote: “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music”, (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). And, as the pattern of rectifying the damage that these cities suffered from the Second World War emerged again and again throughout our stay in Germany, it raised questions for me that are oddly familiar to a folk musician… How important are our traditions? Are we obliged to recreate pieces of our history that we have lost? And how do new styles fit in alongside all of this?
Rachel Darling – aged 18.