Time to “turn around”
How the international performing arts group Gen Verde dialed up their creativity even more to bring hope amid the pandemic
By Nancy Uelmen
“What do we do now?” As I sat waiting to board the last ferry from Barcelona to Civitavecchia in Italy one evening last year in March, many thoughts crossed my mind.
Just a few days earlier, after concerts in Andalucía and the Canary Islands, we had reached another city, ready to kick-off our week-long “Start Now Project.” These performing arts workshops were for about 100 high school students, who would then join us on stage during the big final concert. After that, we had exciting plans for the rest of our tour all over Spain.
But the day before starting the workshops, we realized that if we didn’t suspend the tour and return home to Italy, we risked being stuck there for months under lockdown. In fact, Spain closed its borders that very night we left its shores.
In all my years of working as a performer and songwriter with Gen Verde, an international performing arts group currently made up of 19 women from 14 different countries, I’ve never lived through a challenge quite like this one.
Recent years have brought us some amazing opportunities, with tours in Central America (including participating in the World Youth Day in Panama), Asia and Europe, doing workshops with thousands of young people and reaching many more through our music and concerts.
We were really looking forward to a full schedule throughout 2020, including a coast-to-coast tour in the U.S., starting in New York in September. Now everything had suddenly come to a halt.
Yet we felt that one thing was more certain than ever: God had an even bigger plan for all of us. We just needed to keep on believing and trusting. We asked ourselves: How can we be close to people during these difficult times? How can we bring them hope?
So we decided to do a series of livestream performances. We started simple, trying to find creative ways to work within all the limits of Covid-19, doing short programs with our songs and experiences. We started producing some new music videos and held many Zoom meetings with various groups all over the world.
It wasn’t long before we were amazed to see that we were reaching many more people than if we would have continued our tours!
However, as the weeks and months passed, the reality gradually hit us hard. Live performing arts ventures would be the very last activities to reopen. This uncertainty was going to be very, very long.
When it became clear that our 2020 U.S. tour was not going to materialize, it was a huge blow for me personally. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I simply couldn’t stop the tears from flowing, as my “California dream” of bringing Gen Verde to the U.S. seemed to vanish into thin air.
Teaming up with “One in Hope”
We had been preparing this tour for over a year, in collaboration with a team linked to the international Vincentian Family office, based in Philadelphia. As an expression of our special friendship with the Vincentians, we had even had written and recorded a new song, dedicated to St. Vincent (“You Did It To Me”), to be launched during our tour.
The Vincentians didn’t want to give up this dream tour either. While we still plan to do the U.S. tour in due time, we decided to form a team to explore ways to bring hope to young people — especially students — during the pandemic.
So we started a new project called “One in Hope” and worked to promote it with the Vincentian Family, as well as members of the Focolare all over the U.S. and Canada. We kicked it off with an online concert to coincide with the original starting date of our tour at St. John’s University in New York. The response was amazing, with thousands of people following all over the world.
Different kind of Christmas
This experience also encouraged us to do a special online Christmas concert in December, where we included some traditional holiday music and also two new singles: “Christmas Star” and “Child of Light.” Here, too, people’s response literally overwhelmed us.
Sometimes I’ve wondered why people would want to watch us again and again. They often tell us that it is because of the way we interact with each other on stage. I think it’s an expression of our joy, when we try to make mutual love the soul of our relationships.
We are all very different — races, cultures, and languages — but our experience of unity in this diversity is very strong. We try to make that reality come out in our songs, which are often based on our own stories, or on people who inspire us as bridge-builders.
We certainly make sure the quality of our music and performance is professional, up to date, and relevant to young people; but for us, it’s even more important that people feel that, above all, we try to live the values that we sing about.
Time to “Turn Around”
This period of lockdown has also resulted in another creative endeavor for us: a song called “Turn Around.” We had wanted to write a song about the importance of protecting the Earth, and recent events really confirmed for us that this was the right moment. In the process of writing the lyrics, a very big inspiration for me was Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, which emphasizes how everything in nature is so deeply connected, and how the climate crisis we face today is both environmental and social.
Thinking of how storytelling is so important in our songwriting, I remembered how I once interviewed astronaut James Buchli during a conference at the United Nations headquarters. It was actually an interview for Living City, for which I was working at the time. Buchli told me about the huge impression it made on him to observe the Earth from outer space, a world without boundaries.
He also talked about his concern about the environment, saying he could notice the damage from space. I thought his perspective would be an ideal way to start the song, because if we learn to contemplate the beauty of creation and of God’s loving presence underneath all of nature connecting everything, then we will want to protect it.
Seeing all the young people today on the front lines in the battle to save our planet, we thought of making them the lead characters of this song. So we formed a virtual choir of a group of teenagers and children from all over the world. The voices of Gen Verde intertwine with theirs at a certain point, as if to say that we need to let the young people lead the way to really turn things around.
Given the synergy between this song and the themes of the “Economy of Francesco” international online event last November, we presented the new music video as part of the program. I think those of us who work in music and the arts have a huge responsibility to help people.
Nancy Uelmen grew up in Los Angeles. She studied English and music there and then completed her Master’s in English in New York. Shortly after moving to the Focolare’s little city of Loppiano, near Florence, she joined Gen Verde in 1992 and has since continued her studies in composing and arranging in Italy. She is currently Gen Verde’s music director. Visit their website at www.genverde.it
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