From Rio's streets and homeless shelters, choir performs With One Voice

They live in Brazil’s margins, but together, they sing as the choir With One Voice, a music project that aims to bring Rio’s unseen peoples — "o invisivel" — to popular landmarks, giving them a stage from which to be seen and heard through song.
Performers with Brazil's With One Voice choir, from left: Hassan Mohammad Rafael, Paulo Isidora, Elizabeth Miguel, and Ivan Marik. The choir, which has been performing at key Rio landmarks during the Olympic Games, is made up of people living on the city's streets and in its homeless shelters. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Some of the performers have mental health issues. Some have been surviving on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for weeks, many of them for years. They live on Brazil's margins, but together, they sing as the choir With One Voice, a music project that aims to bring Rio's unseen peoples — "o invisivel" — to popular landmarks, giving them a stage from which to be seen and heard through song. 

With the Rio Olympics as a backdrop, a group of about 50 singers this week sang versions of the spiritual Freedom, and the Brazilian folk songs Aquarela do Brasil and Eu, Cacador De Mim. Here are some of their stories, in their words:

Elizabeth Miguel, 58, arrived with 3 large blue plastics bag containing her belongings:

I take a bath at the bus station. I live on the sidewalk in front of the Souza Aguiar hospital, right by the bus station. 

I've been living for four months in the streets. Before that, I was renting a place in Pilares. Then had a bad financial moment and I moved to the street. Financially, I thought it would be just a month. But we also have to learn how to live in the street, and how it works, because we can't wash clothes. There's no way for us to cook.

I want to leave the street and rent, like I did before, and start my life again. Before, I sold crackers in the Central train station of Rio, and it was enough to pay the rent.

I've been singing for four months with this choir. I like all of the songs. I had never sung before, and now I'm here. It's exciting to perform because this is something I never thought I would do in my life. 

Getting applauded from all sides is very exciting. Because it's like we've fallen down when we're on the street. Our self-esteem is low.

Hassan Mohammad Rafael, 60, fled Syria during the war 4 years ago. He still wears his Syrian air force dog-tags:

I'm a refugee from Syria. I'm trained as an economist, but I fled from the war four years ago. I was in Brazil in the past and was deported, but I came back. I came here illegally on a ship. I just hid on the ship.

I've been in a homeless shelter for two years.

Before, in Syria, I was in the military. I was from Palmyra, that's my hometown. I was in the military, with the air force. 

These [shows his dog-tags] are a document from the air force. I had to get rid of all my documents, and this is all that I have left.

When war is happening, I forgot everything. You have no notion of what a country at war is like, and music is the only thing that makes me happy. When the music starts, it just carries me.

Paulo Isidora, 37, suffers from depression. He says singing gives him a spiritual lift:

When I was younger, I sang in churches and schools. I've been living in a homeless shelter for three months. It's also a place for people who have problems with drugs, alcohol, depression, family problems, or lack of housing. 

In my case, I was depressed. I passed through a series of personal and psychological problems, and in this situation I lost my head a little. It wasn't because of lack of housing in my case. It was very complex circumstances. 

Here, I can start the story of my life over again. I like the song we sing, Aquarela do Brasil.

A lot of people here have fears and traumas and are in the street because of problems with their family. Chemical problems, problems with drinking. 

Seeing art in the lives of homeless people shows what they have the capacity to produce.

I hope to return to working in communications. I worked in advertising for grocery stores. I also did landscape art. But I also want to focus on social work, to give talks about social issues, and to open space for people who are left out in the social apartheid we have in Rio de Janeiro. 

Right now, the spotlights of the world are on Rio, but there is a huge mass of people who are being ignored. They are human beings. That's our message here. 

Ivan Marik, 56, is an American from Florida living in a Rio homeless shelter. His family has tried to get him back to the States:

Glad to be able to speak to another person who speaks English. I'm still working on my Portuguese, it's tough. I don't have any family, they're all in Florida.

I've been here for about four years — two years in the shelter. When I was working here for a while, I got robbed, and I wound up being homeless. I was working at a telemarketing facility. Now I'm working on getting all my paperwork together to get back to the United States. 

I went through a divorce, and so I decided to relocate because I was born here, actually.

We got involved in the singing group through the shelter. My favourite song is Freedom. Because it represents people being able to be free from oppression and and free from drugs, alcohol, things like that. Freedom for being able to be in their own home, having their own lives. I've struggled with alcohol, but I'm past that hurdle. 

This project helps me to be able to be around people who are friendly, and around people who have the same goals in mind as I do. I love singing. I haven't been singing for long, for a couple of years. I sang in a chorus as a younger man, it was a church choir, we would sing God Bless America, O Holy Night, you know, Christmas songs, things like that. 

I don't get to dance much at the "abrigo" — that's a shelter in Portuguese. But here, to see the smiles we bring, that makes me feel great, it makes me feel like a human being. It's just the excitement of having people appreciate what we're doing. When I'm not singing, I'm in the shelter and I study the Bible. 


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Interviews were condensed and edited for length