We had the chance to speak to Heinz Lehmbruck, director of Cologne Climate Choir, a choir formed by mostly environmental activists, located in Cologne (Germany). As an interesting fact, this city was the first German metropolis with a population of more than a million people to join the declaration movement and bring climate crisis urgency into the local agenda.
That being said, Cologne Climate Choir creates its own music by adapting well-known pop tunes from their participants' youth and German folk songs. They adapt the texts to topical situations and support young movements in demonstrations. Spreading song sheets, powerful energy and intelligent cheeky lyrics, they cause people to stop by and listen to their message.
Tempo team member, specialist in creative risk communication, Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch, conducted this very special interview. Join us by reading this lovely story.
How did the project start?
The Climate Choir, Cologne Climate Choir, as we call it, started about five years ago. We joined big demonstrations around protecting a piece of forest about to be excavated as a coal mine. We supported those activists who had been living in tree houses and gave performances there to protect the space. In the end, we joined about 50,000 people who managed to protect the forest. Our choir consists of members from different choirs in Cologne. We positioned ourselves and sang a couple of songs from our youth because our taste of music was different from the topical music the young generation of activists were playing, we shared the cause but not the musical taste. Thus our music appealed to the older generation of demo participants and we decided to bring our own repertoire to the demonstrations.
I remember it was autumn, so we turned a traditional autumn song into a political one and people liked it. Then, more demonstrations were needed, for example, against the use of fossil energy, in particular coal here in the area, and we said: ‘why don't we get together whenever there is a demo because we want to go to the demo anyway? Why don't we do it with a bit of singing?’ Essentially, we take the tunes of songs from our youth and renew them using texts on the basis of the melodies that refer to contemporary political events concerning climate change.
Tell us about your team. Who's there playing? How's the choir?
Actually, we are not a choir singing four-part harmonies because we don't rehearse. The tunes are well-known. We don't have the time to rehearse. People just want to get together, be part of a demo, and sing songs with melodies they love. There are always new people coming, it's just very spontaneous. We have got 1 or 2 guitarists, a violinist, an accordionist. Let's say I have got a list of 100 people I can mobilize.
Did you use music in your demonstrations when you were young too?
I started to play the guitar when I became a teacher, but I was influenced by political activism of the 70s. For instance, in the anti-nuclear weapon campaigns of the 1950s in Britain and in American civil rights marches, they used music, didn't they? And I learned about that tradition. When nuclear missiles were a topic in Germany in the early 1980s, we went to demonstrations, likewise against some fascist groups, and we had satirical songs against those right-wing political movements. It has become a tradition for me to comment on political events by means of songs.
What would you say that has changed since that time when you were protesting about those political and environmental concerns until today?
Fridays For Future revived our environmental movement. And of course, their culture of music is different, but that's natural. Otherwise, I think nowadays society is far more split into different sub-milieus, and subsections, and it is harder to unite a movement. Back then the peace movement in the 1980s was rather a big one. Now we have so many groups that support different ecological political organizations.
Generally speaking, the individualization of society has grown. In the past, it was sort of large blocks of trade union organizations that played an important role, which is not the case now because trade unions have lost importance or have lost influence. I think that's maybe one big difference.
Does music make a difference? If you compare communicating this very same message to talking to someone else, but then you're doing it through music. In which way is it transformative?
Well, I'm all for interesting creative posters and signs, you can carry them along when the demo moves on, etcetera. But a song, a humorous song in particular, gives you another sort of good feeling. A groovy atmosphere adds to the feeling. We are then together with other people, standing for the same fight, for the same aims. Sometimes you need a solidarity feeling, and music helps to create that, to strengthen resistance.