Ex-Chumbawumba guitarist Boff Whalley's Commoners Choir in Leeds starts a zine

Commoners Choir, led by Boff Whalley, have been singing about social injustice for six years, now they have started a zine. Yvette Huddleston reports.

A performance by Commoners Choir. Picture: John Woods.

Since its was founded in 2015, Commoners Choir has been singing out about social injustice – raising awareness of issues such as poverty, homelessness, the refugee crisis, public library closures and climate change.

Set up by playwright, composer and ex-Chumbawumba guitarist Boff Whalley, the Leeds-based choir’s aims were outlined in a powerful and unashamedly left-leaning manifesto. Among its 11 points, it stated that the songs would be ‘about the world around us, about inequality and unfairness and about the things that need changing’ and that they would be ‘explicitly political’.

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They sing about things that matter, with strong uncompromising messages always infused with a blast of irreverence, humour and hope.

Now they have found a new way of spreading the word through their zine Commontary, the second issue of which has just been published. It is one of the many productive endeavours that the Choir has been involved in over the past very strange year and was born out of those unusual, challenging circumstances.

“In February 2020 we launched our second album Untied Kingdom and we were really gearing up to take the choir up to the next level in terms of performances and visibility,” says choir member and Commontary editor Helen Lucy. “The album was fantastic, so was the launch and there was a real buzz around it. And then everything just stopped. We had 12 dates booked up to go around the UK promoting the album and getting wider support and of course we couldn’t do that.”

The timing wasn’t great, but it is obvious from everything they do and hold dear that Commoners Choir have a can-do attitude and they weren’t about to let a mere global pandemic prevent them from keeping active and getting their message out.

“There was a real determination that we were all going to somehow keep in touch and stay creative,” says Lucy.

“We recorded some songs, recording our voices individually and then sending the recordings to Boff to compile them. We released a couple of YouTube videos and we took on an allotment where we have also been able to practice as it’s an open air space.”

All the while there were ongoing conversations about how to remain active, relevant and in the public consciousness. “One of the ideas that came up was to have a go at a zine to broadcast our ideas to the wider world and to give us another creative outlet,” says Lucy. “We can’t get out there and be in front of people at the moment but this is one way of projecting ourselves beyond that.”

Each issue is on a theme – the first was, appropriately enough, ‘disruption’ and the theme of the second edition is ‘trespass’. “The ambition is for it to be a quarterly publication. As we are all volunteers nobody is obliged to contribute – if people are inspired by the theme, they will submit pieces. We have had two issues out in a seven-month period and the next one will be on ‘comedy’.”

The hope is that the Choir will be back out touring in the autumn, in the meantime Lucy hopes people will enjoy the zine. “I think it is a thing of beauty,” she says. “And as editor it has been such a pleasure to put it all together.”