Kadria Thomas: a gospel choir leader offering inspiration and positivity through the medium of song
Sign in to leave comments
“Singing, it’s been my lifeline. Music allows you to just be genuine. It’s not a handout, it’s a sharing”.
Kadria is a singer and community leader. She was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, in 1961 to an English mother and Yemini father. She grew up in Aden, Yemen, until her family fled from conflict in 1969 to Manchester. Kadria has since performed with gospel groups and community choirs and she taken part in various cross-cultural projects through her work with Community Arts North West. As a choir leader, Kadria has a notably open approach to musical repertoire, arranging contemporary pop and traditional songs alongside gospel standards and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she took her voice online, sharing her message of hope and faith with the world.
KADRIA’S MUSICAL LIFE STORY
Kadria’s life of travel started young. At just nine months old, her mother took her on a journey from Sheffield to Aden to join her father who was working there at the time. Kadria describes herself as the ‘product’ of the two worlds of her parents – Yorkshire and Yemen – and this voyage symbolised the bridge between the two. Kadria is still overwhelmed thinking about the courage of her mother in making that journey.
“My mum took this journey from Sheffield all the way to Aden in Yemen, on her own, in the 60s…I actually have very recently discovered a passport that had all the visas stamped with the ports and the journey that she made…Sheffield, Paris, Marseilles, Egypt, and then Aden…What a brave woman!…It wasn’t really heard of to make that journey”.
Kadria’s family then stayed in Aden from 1962 until 1970, with her brothers and sister all being born in Yemen. Their experience in Aden was somewhat mixed. Kadria remembers Aden as a cosmopolitan port city with all the multicultural vibrancy that comes from people from many different places living together. However, as a strategic port in the Suez, Aden was in constant conflict both during its struggle for independence from the British until 1967 and after, when various factions and surrounding countries all looked to claim the port for themselves to control the flow of trade between Europe and East Asia.
“Aden was a fantastic place to be – multicultural. The food was diverse, the people were diverse, we had all sorts of communities there: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, people came from China, India. It was really way ahead of its time. It was really united”.
Kadria grew up in a house full of song. Her parents were well regarded in the community because her mum was a school teacher and Kadria herself became a local celebrity. Being half-English and able to sing in Arabic, she was considered a unique gem in Aden and, after appearing on a TV show, she was invited to perform all over the city.
“As far back as I can remember, music has been part of family life. My mum sings constantly. Even now, she’ll be cooking and she’ll sing. You say any word and she has a song for it”.
“When I was about four or five…my parents were asked if I could sing on a TV chat show…I was this little novelty because I was mixed race…I became quite well known in Aden, people found any opportunity to get me to sing this one song! It was about having a pet cat and how beautiful this pet cat was, and how we treasure it and look after it”.
In 1969, Kadria’s parents felt that the internal conflict was not subsiding and the delicate balance of unity in Aden was becoming disturbed, so they decided to return to England. They chose Manchester because of the significant Yemeni community in areas like Eccles and Irlam, and Kadria’s father had a friend in Salford that offered the family a room in his house. Kadria recounts the “coldness” that they faced there, both in terms of the weather and the general hostility, with Kadria even being discouraged from singing at school. At age 10, they moved to Prestwich, which they found far more peaceful, and the family set down roots, staying all the way through to 2020. At school in Prestwich, Kadria discovered her love for group singing after joining the school choir.
“The first school in Salford was not very fond memories. When I was about nine and a half, I auditioned to be part of the school choir, and I was told that my voice wasn’t good enough. So that knocked my confidence. I was this kind of vulnerable young person that had just emigrated from a different country…It was really difficult”.
“In Prestwich, I was in the choir from the age of 14, singing the soprano. The deputy head was dedicated to the choir, to each member as well – there was no kind of prejudice against any of the members and she treated us equally. It was brilliant”.
After school, Kadria went to Salford College to study industrial fashion and design for four years. During her studies, she met her now husband, Tyndale, and they bonded over their shared love of music. Tyndale brought Kadria into the world of Pentecostal music and she ended up singing with his contemporary gospel group, the Challengers.
“I met Tyndale, who is my now husband, in 1978. He lives and breathes music. His whole life is music. All the conversations that we had were around music. My idea at that time of music was quite broad…I liked anything that had storytelling of facing adversity, overcoming adversity sometimes. Maybe that was, subconsciously, me trying to overcome what had happened in Aden”.
“Two years into our relationship, I discovered that Tyndale was a minister’s son…I started going to the same church [as] Tyndale’s family. I was Church of England…With my mum, I was singing the chants and the hymns, which I love, on a Sunday. On a Saturday, I would go to this Pentecostal church in Longsight and sing with tambourines and drums and it was completely different. I couldn’t really get enough!…I think it just opened up another road that I could walk down”.
“The Challengers was one of the first contemporary gospel groups in this country. I used to go and see them at the Free Trade Hall. People were like, ‘That’s your boyfriend on the stage’, that was cringeworthy!…It was a big, big influence that opened my mind up to so much more music…to Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, Parliament, Earth, Wind and Fire, also the gospel musicians like Andraé Crouch and the Hawkins Family…Then I was asked to join the Challengers. We were on the road and we went everywhere…up and down the country”.
Alongside the Challengers, Kadria was part of a choir, the Merrybell gospel choir, which had been set up by Tyndale’s sister, Genevieve. The choir won numerous accolades, including an appearance on Channel 4 and topping the Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition in 1989, and they completed a mini tour of the United States.
“We got to go over to America – all 32 of us! We started off in New York, in the Bronx and Brooklyn…We travelled to Atlanta in Georgia, to North Carolina, and then to Maryland in Washington. Amazing experience for young people that had never been out of the country…To actually be invited to sing in America, you realise that you’re singing the history of the people there! So, it was nerve wracking to be singing gospel to the people who created gospel, but, to be so warmly received, it was fantastic”.
In the early 90s, the Challengers and the Merrybells subsided and Kadria started working for Community Arts North West. She supported several multicultural projects, including In Quotation, Rhythm of Life and Urban Voice. While all very different, what these projects had in common was working with musicians from different cultures and bringing them together to share their songs, sounds and stories on Manchester stages, including the Bridgewater Hall and the RNCM.
“We did something for the Commonwealth Games when it came to Manchester where we actually went to Barbados and worked with some current musicians and stilt walkers…That was another stage in my growth that really set me on the path that I’m on now, and that is to be a part of a global music society…to learn more, to collaborate”.
Since then, Kadria has continued leading choirs and working on multicultural music projects. Her latest choir, Accord Inspirational Choir, sings any repertoire with a “positive” message, from gospel classics to contemporary pop songs. She has also recently started working with Romani musicians in a project called “Gypsy Jam” which brings together Romani and non-Romani musicians and audiences to share music and culture. Kadria’s deepest ambition is to retrace the steps her mother took travelling from Sheffield to Aden, with hopes to connect with her roots and bring her journey full circle.
“I want to follow my mum’s footsteps and actually make that journey from Sheffield all the way, as far as I can, to Aden. I know obviously there’s conflict there. I would love to go through the Suez, but whether or not I’d be able to, I don’t know. I want to follow that journey…and work with musicians along the journey”.
THE MEANINGS OF KADRIA’S MUSIC
Music has had a powerful role in Kadria’s life and she values any music that tells stories, communicates emotions, and spreads positivity. She describes music as a spiritual language that can transcend the norms of everyday society.
“There’s so many people that use their gift of music and song to open up discussions for a better way. And you can take what you need for the road that you’re travelling on at the time…When I pray, I always say to God, ‘This language that we use isn’t enough to convey the feeling that we have’. The term ‘stuck for words’, you don’t use it lightly, really. I don’t think that there’s a situation that music, singing, dance, any of the art forms really, can’t get into the very crooks and crannies of somebody’s psyche, somebody’s soul, somebody’s emotion. And we have to be careful with it, because I’ve seen many, many times where there’s been songs that we’ve used where individuals just cry and don’t know what to do with themselves. Some get angry, because of the emotions that are provoked. So you have to be really, really careful with that. I think you have to go with a very peaceful and generous mindset into any situation”.
Kadria also highlights that, because of its emotional power, music can be used as a tool for community building in many different contexts. Even back in the 1980s, Kadria was working on schemes using music to help rehabilitate people in prisons, and she has also been part of projects drawing on the healing power of music in medical contexts.
“We had an NHS community choir with the Pennine Trust. The whole thing was for people that were struggling with depression and isolation, their support network and families, and also the practitioners that were working with them. So we had, right from people that were being treated to the people that were treating them in the choir, it was absolutely fantastic. We had some programmes, like ‘Healthy Minds, Healthy Voices’, where we did like a walk and sing, so we started treating situations on a holistic level. So we treat the whole person…using songs that complemented whatever topic we chose to discuss”.
Finally, Kadria believes that music has a unifying power when people show respect for each other’s cultures, as shown by her work on multicultural projects. She points out that this passion stems from her own upbringing between different worlds.
“The relationship [mum and dad] had was that they are from two separate worlds. So we’ve had that example, all our lives, not to judge anybody…My mum and dad were sticklers for that – you don’t treat anybody differently and you treat them as you would want to be treated…Being mixed race myself, I think, has given me that understanding of being open…Working with people from different cultures musically, we gain experience, wisdom, knowledge along the way and you walk in there, mindful and respectful of that, no matter how much knowledge you have of a music genre or a culture”.
GOSPEL MUSIC IN MANCHESTER
Kadria thinks that Manchester has significantly opened up over the years she has lived in the city. She believes that the “cold” situation she faced as a child, where she did not have opportunities to connect with her own cultural background and was actively discouraged from musical participation, is very different from the situation children in Manchester find themselves today, where they can celebrate their different musics and cultures as a piece of the vibrant multiculturalism of the city. She believes that gospel is an important part of this picture, and that gospel itself is becoming increasingly diverse, moving to some extent from religiously oriented music towards any music that has a positive message that can inspire and comfort.
“In Manchester, you can’t deny the multicultural community that there is. I won’t say ‘communities’, it is a community. You can walk anywhere…One minute, you’re sat next to a table that people are speaking in Spanish or French or Chinese and so on. Wherever I go, I think you can’t help but feel good that, on a grassroots level, we’re doing good as a global society. Sadly, there’s influences that try and determine to break that apart…there are still idiots around that can’t move on, but I think that’s a problem with them and not the other way around…If you’re open and you’re willing, you find the similarities within us, and not the differences. You can go to anybody and ask them about music and they light up…So, we mustn’t downplay the influence of the arts”.
“In the gospel fraternity, we can be a part of music and singing…and we can have a positive influence. We need not to be afraid. I think there is a fear. There is a line drawn between secular music and gospel music, but there are people like the Hawkins family, Andraé Crouch, Kirk Franklin at the present moment, and other musicians here in England like Tyndale and myself, who are working really hard to say, ‘Look, gospel music means good news’. You can bring a positive message across to people in any language and in any genre of music. Who’s to say that a rock band or a punk band can’t have a positive message? I think we need to open our understanding more”.
“We Shall Overcome” (SEE VIDEO)
This group singing of “We Shall Overcome” at Chorlton Arts Festival in 2021 shows the “Accord style” of relaxed performance/workshop, where audience and musicians blend together into one whole choir unified by song.
Materials contained on this site are free to use for educational purposes only. To reproduce this material for any other reason or for full transcript request, please contact us
Kadria Thomas: a gospel choir leader offering inspiration and positivity through the medium of song
Sign in to leave comments