ARTISTS OF MECHELEN – Marie sings in an inclusive choir: “Sjarazang opened a lot of doors for me”

The moment you walk into the Sjarazang building, you step in a warm and colourful environment. People welcome you with a smile on their face and ask you about your day. When one of the choir members, Marie*, walks in, they offer her a drink and invite her to sit with them. She is a 35-year-old woman with a passion for music and sports. In her free time she takes vocal lessons and plays in a field hockey team. When she sings at Sjarazang she feels at home.

“I’m part of a group and that feels amazing, because from the age of 12 I felt really lonely, and the fact that you belong somewhere is important to me. I once told Kaat, one of the choir mentors, ‘I don’t have any friends’, and she replied with ‘But we are your friends’. I thought that was super sweet and I still get goosebumps thinking about it”, she says.

“In other choirs people kept looking at me, doubting my abilities, and I didn’t like that”

Two years ago, Marie joined Sjarazang, an inclusive choir in Mechelen. Their goal is to connect people with and without disabilities so as to encourage a shared artistic experience through which they can learn from each other.

Marie has always loved singing: “As a child I used to sing myself to sleep”. So joining a choir was a logical step for her, unfortunately not all her experiences were good. “In other choirs people kept looking at me, doubting my abilities, and I didn’t like that”. She started looking for a fun choir for people with disabilities and that’s how she found Sjarazang. She called them the next day and was immediately welcome to join.

Marie had a difficult time growing up, but the choir helped her achieve some of her goals. “Sjarazang opened a lot of doors for me”, she says. “My confidence has improved a lot since joining the choir”. The conductor, Karin De Bels, also noticed her personal development throughout the years. Marie can use this newly built confidence in other aspects of her life. For example, she has been asked to help pitch the ‘Kunstpakt’, a project from Sjarabang, the umbrella organisation which Sjarazang is part of. The idea behind it is to sell or rent out works of art made by people with disabilities. Here Marie can put her former education in Public Relations to good use.

“The choir is the best part of my week”, Marie says. When asked about her favourite song during the interview, she mentions ‘Gelukkig te Samen’ (`Happy together`). Just a moment later she starts singing it with Karin and Kaat. A smile immediately appears on all three of their faces. You can also find many of these smiles during their rehearsals, which are being held weekly, on Wednesday evenings.

“It’s not just a group, we really are a family, a Sjarazang family”

The choir brings original songs, and they adapt the lyrics of pop songs to their own style. “In the choir everybody supports each other”, Marie says. An example of this is tapping the other on the shoulder to indicate the rhythm.

They start Wednesday’s rehearsal practicing “Wij Zijn de Vlam Vandaag” (`We are the flame today`), the opening song for the Special Olympics. This event is taking place in Mechelen, and Sjarazang will perform. Since this is a new song, the members of the choir got to vote whether they wanted to sing it or not during their performance. However, not only do they sing during rehearsal, but they also chat about their day. “It’s not just a group, we really are a family, a Sjarazang family”.

Conductor of the choir, Karin De Bels, is happy Marie joined the choir: “She is a very jovial girl, but she has high standards when it comes to herself. That is amazing for me, because she wants to be perfect. She makes sure that the group feels like a group”.

*We use Marie since the interviewee preferred to not use her real name.

Research: Amber Laenen
Interview: Amber Laenen, Veerle Kroon
Text: Amber Laenen, Amalia Oprescu, Veerle Kroon
Photo: © Amber Laenen, Amalia Oprescu