We recently sat down with Sandi Hammond, director of the Butterfly Human Rights Choir, to ask her a few questions about her 18-29 year-old, women’s choir and their piece “Malala’s Song to the Taliban.” They’ll be performing their piece during Evening Worship @ The Well on Nov. 16th at 6:15 PM. For more information, click here.

IMG_09461. What inspired you to create the Butterfly Human Rights Choir?

I’m not sure I had a single “ah-ha” moment… I grew up with parents who have always shown me their deep convictions around social justice- racial equality, gender equality, gay rights.  They did it by example and in conversations with me and my brother growing up, so that was always part of the fabric of our household so to speak.  And, I grew up singing in an amazing children’s chorus that really grounded me musically. More recently, my inspiration was a change that came about over the last few years. A year ago I was working full time in sales selling luxury products to the wealthiest 1%.  I had taken the job because it was lucrative and I was supporting myself, I was good at sales, and I had gotten burnt out on teaching music and the grind of living on musician’s wages.  But I was traveling 50% of the time to the West Coast and exhausted all the time, and all of my friendships were becoming fragmented by my nutty schedule.  While I liked my clients and the people around me, the work itself began to feel pretty empty.  I was thinking “the 1% has lots of help!”  I would see these incredibly wealthy families with an army at their fingertips- live-in maids, private chefs, private jets, interior designers, architects, personal assistants- – and I felt like another cog in that wheel.  I thought “they don’t need me!  Where am I needed?” In the meantime, I was reading articles about income inequality, poverty around the world… While I realize sales creates jobs and that has its own social benefit, I found myself thinking “is this where I want to be?”  I went to a party that was sort of a high school mini-reunion and someone said “why aren’t you using your music degree?” Around that same time I read Half the Sky by Nicholas Krystof and then picked up a copy of “I Am Malala”  These two books grabbed me and I felt this yearning to do something directly connected to social justice. Internally several inner voices began to tug at me.  I also started think about my days 8 years ago when I was teaching music full time.  I asked myself- what from that time did I miss the most?  Why did I burn out?  How can I go back to music in a new way where I avoid burnout and make it satisfying? The answer I got was- focus on choral conducting and composing;  my most satisfying, musically alive moments had been while directing a choir of teen girls, and composing/arranging.   And, there had been key moments where I had been able to really help a student, to make a difference not just with their music but to really connect with them and encourage them as human beings out in the world.  I wanted to be immersed again in something like that.  .After I left my sales job, my soul was talking more insistently about music and social justice, and somehow melding the two.  Maybe this was an ah-ha moment, but at the time I didn’t know it: one day, about a month after I had left my job, without a conscious thought, I went to the basement and rummaged  hastily through my many boxes of music to find a Holocaust Memorial song cycle (for children’s/women’s choir) I had taught.  I pulled it out, blew off the dust, brought it upstairs and started studying it again.  It was if my body or my soul took me to the basement; I remember feeling fuzzy headed and tired, but as if my body knew what to do.  I wasn’t totally sure what was happening, but I knew that it felt very, very important and authentic.

As for the age group of young women, and why I chose that, I have several former students in their 20’s and we started getting together to sing.  The idea sprang from there; plus, music for treble voices (alto, soprano) is my specialty and what I know best, so I went with it.    I could also see that the young women got a lot of benefit from being around each other and working together- they could create an important social experience in the choir.  I started thinking that focusing on this demographic could be valuable.  I think for women in their 20’s they are making important life decisions and are in a critical developmental stage.  What if I could create a supportive, mentoring environment?  What if I could show them respect beyond the immediate joy and task of mastering challenging music, but that I also value their intellect and ideas more broadly? I was also reading articles about Millenials (I’m Generation X) and I thought- what can they teach me about how they see the world?  What can they bring to our human rights mission?  I started thinking that a deeper, purposeful mission could really resonate with that age group- and it looks like I was right.

I think for women in their 20’s they are making important life decisions and are in a critical developmental stage.  What if I could show them respect beyond the immediate joy and task of mastering challenging music, but that I also value their intellect and ideas more broadly? 

2. When you join us for worship, the choir will be performing a piece you wrote called “Malala’s Song to the Taliban.” What inspired to choose Malala’s story for this project? What do you hope people will walk away from the piece thinking and feeling?

Malala’s book grabbed me by my shirt collar.  There is so much in it that sometimes I would read a section, pause, go back and re-read…Reading her book was a little like reading two books at once: the first book is her story which reads like an epic drama.  The second “book within the book” if you will is her political voice, her passion for justice.  So in one sense the book is about an 11-year-old girl growing up amidst political and economic turmoil, and her family’s interesting stories and moments at home which she describes beautifully, but in another sense you can see her developing and articulating a vision for the future of the world- it is the voice of a much older, wiser person.  It is remarkable.  I thought “she is the next Gandhi”.    The book haunted me.  I don’t know if I decided to write a musical piece about it so much as I was more compelled to do so.  This isn’t the first time I’ve read a book and felt a need to dramatize or heighten the story with music and/or theater.  I felt compelled to lift her story up and make it more palpable.  So I would say the song grabbed me too- and I wrote it down.  It really came to me over a period of about 4 months, in waves.

I hope people will walk away having truly taken in the gravity of what happened to her, and what continues to happen every day to girls around the world.  Reading Half the Sky was like a huge alarm bell going off for me- we must take action!!!  For girls all around the world who are expected to have babies and remain quiet, who are forced into child marriage, to never be encouraged to use their full intellectual abilities.  To me that is a tragedy- to never have room to let the brain breathe, grow, explore- to be silenced and stunted and shamed.  It’s just total thievery of human dignity.  I hope people walk away thinking “what can I do?”    There are so many, many ways we can help.  For starters, I can suggest a few websites:

www.malala.org | www.halfthesky.org | www.butterflymusic.org | www.fightingexploitation.org

3. What sort of emotions are involved in writing and performing a piece around such an intense story?

I think a lot of the emotions came up for me while reading the book- and re-reading it.  I was just thunderstruck by Malala’s story and I also learned a lot about Pakistan’s history and about the Taliban.  So as far as the emotions go- grief, anger, sadness that even the people we are angry at need compassion and education- the Taliban themselves- while having committed acts of great brutality- murder, torture- desperately need education.  So how can we get it right?  Disappointment in the human race- but I also feel hope.  By the time I wrote the piece it was out of a determination to dramatize aspects of Malala’s story.  I guess that is what I feel the most now- determined.  The sadness and anger and fear I felt while gripped by the book have shifted to passion and determination.

Malala has said many times publicly that she does not wish to be known as the girl who was shot by the Taliban, but as the girl who stood up for girls’ education.

4. How did you “enter” Malala’s story to the point where you were able to write a piece that feels authentic? 

I have no idea, and I also would never claim to feel I am telling it authentically.  In fact, my song focuses on the shooting…and Malala has said many times publicly that she does not wish to be known as the girl who was shot by the Taliban, but as the girl who stood up for girls’ education.  So- I want to acknowledge that in some ways my song dramatizes the very thing she wants to get away from.  But I can say that I spent months thinking about the book, going back to sections of it.  I’m still absorbing the story – of Malala, of Pakistan’s history and its current situation.  I know I will keep going back to the book.

5. How do you think the women in the choir, and you as the writer, have been changed through the performing and writing of this piece?

I can only speak for myself, but writing the piece has made me determined to do more of this kind of writing, and has inspired me to take Malala’s story- and those of other women- out into the world.   I can take the way the book impacted me and turn it into an opportunity to connect with and inspire others.  And as of this writing, we have yet to perform it, so I can’t say yet how it has impacted me.  But I sure am curious to find out.

Many choirs tour to beautiful places to perform and sightsee; we want to do that too, but every trip will have a mandated service component where we visit the poorest parts of a country and volunteer.

6. What does the future hold for the Butterfly Women’s Human Rights Choir?

We have two categories of activity (1) performing provocative musical pieces in concert like Malala’s Song to the Taliban to inspire action and educate, and (2) committing acts of direct service in the community. Our vision includes service projects locally at women’s shelters, as well as travel abroad to countries where unfortunately human trafficking- especially of girls for sexual exploitation and prostitution- is rampant.  Many choirs tour to beautiful places to perform and sightsee; we want to do that too, but every trip will have a mandated service component where we visit the poorest parts of a country and volunteer.  The choir members are active in directing our activities.

Ultimately, I would like to expand Butterfly Music beyond the choir and develop a music therapy service for trauma survivors with services in greater Boston and beyond/throughout New England.

7. If someone wants to get involved or learn more information, how can they do that?

There are several opportunities to get involved with Butterfly Music/this choir!

** First and foremost, sign our mailing list so we can keep you informed.

** We would LOVE to audition more women ages 20-29 for membership.  We would like to double in size.  We especially need altos.  Singers- audition!  Come join us.

** We are in the early stages of fundraising and incorporating as a 501 c 3.  We welcome donors and also potential board members.  We are looking for diverse talents and perspectives on our Board! – legal, clinical, musical expertise, business development… Come help us shape and activate our vision!

** We are building our audience for our concerts, so bring friends when you come to hear us!

** Lastly, we are currently booking Malala presentations around New England for the spring, and are interested in performing at temples, schools, synagogues and community centers that will have us.  We can present the song alone, or a more extended presentation with readings from the book; we can even tie it in to a community-wide book reading of Malala’s book!