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I recently had the opportunity to attend the enormous World Youth Day event in Madrid: a gathering of 1.5 million young Catholics from all over the world, joining together to express their faith, celebrate their religion and show support for the church and its leader, Pope Benedict XVI.

Despite the coverage in the UK media focusing mainly on the few thousand protestors, the city was absolutely dominated by positive youthful energy and exuberance, and it was truly a wonderful thing to be a part of. I loved seeing the city alive and loud, and people sharing and interacting in a way you never get on the streets of London. Such a spirit of joy and friendliness in people, with all their defenses down. To a born-and-bred Londoner like myself, accustomed to the buttoned-up “every man for himself” attitude so prevalent in big cities, it was a strikingly different and uplifting atmosphere.

Did you notice I said loud?

The occupation of Madrid was not a quiet, respectful, peaceful one. Far from it! The streets and public transport of central Madrid were alive in conversation and greetings (¡Hola!), but even more so with song and chant, in a huge variety of languages.

Almost all were unfamiliar and unknown (due to the huge range of nationalities represented), but by the end of the week I think all of us on the trip had picked up several of the most common songs’ choruses and chant responses so we could sing along. Some definite earworms crawling around!

Music was ‘officially’ a big component of World Youth Day, including a specially-composed anthem, a surprisingly wide range of music played during religious services during the week, and dedicated musical services like Taizé. I plan on writing more on these topics, but wanted to start with what for me was the unexpected, ‘unofficial’ musical element: beyond these ‘official’ channels, in a widespread, informal, spontaneous and natural way music was a huge part of World Youth Day and the experience and contribution of all the pilgrims visiting Madrid. You couldn’t get through a single journey on the Metro or through the city streets without being surrounded by song! It would be a challenge to find a pilgrim who didn’t, at some point, get caught up in the energy and join in, whether or not they considered themselves musical in any traditional way.

For the most part I found this all really positive. People were expressing themselves and their identity through song, and you’d see almost every member of a group singing or chanting along, in stark contrast to the response you’d get if you asked a random group of young people to sing a song under normal circumstances. No protests of “I can’t really sing” or “I’m not musical” here!

And this was almost always an uplifting and endearing experience. Sure, there were moments of tiredness when the sheer volume, ubiquity and relentlessness of the sound could be a bit wearing. Some chants had a pretty aggressive tone, so that when you saw one Metro carriage of French pilgrims yelling at another carriage of German pilgrims, back and forth at full voice it was a bit hard to see it as Catholic unity rather than nationalistic rivalry. But such occasions were relatively rare, and far more common were smiles all round, singers and audience alike, as people enjoyed hearing new and different songs (in languages they generally didn’t understand).

It was a powerful reminder of the universality of music, its being a fundamental part of human nature, its potential to draw people together and help them communicate emotion without relying on a common language of words. And it was strong, clear counter-evidence to the widely accepted falsehood that you’re either a musician or you’re not.

You don’t need to be a polished performer to sing in front of people and you certainly don’t need a music education to bond with others through song, find common ground across boundaries of language and culture, or praise God – in a way that anyone can understand.

What’s “normal”?

One part of the week’s religious teaching which really stuck with me was the simple question: Why isn’t this friendly, relaxed, helpful attitude we’re all contributing to this week just normal? Can we take this spirit of World Youth Day back into our regular everyday lives back home? For me this was a powerful question, and particularly for the musical side of World Youth Day.

Why isn’t there more singing in the streets?

Why isn’t life more like a musical?

Why are most people scared or embarrassed to express themselves through music?

These are questions which can seem naive and tend to provoke a knee-jerk reaction in us: Don’t be silly. Of course it can’t be like that. We don’t want to hear amateurs making noise. I can’t do that, I never took music lessons. I can’t sing. Sound familiar?

This kind of response is easy and comforting, so it’s tempting to dismiss these kinds of musical expression as only appropriate to big events or very particular circumstances.

But if my experiences in Madrid are anything to go by, these questions don’t have such simple, obvious, negative answers.

Is it only fear which stops us bringing this kind of musical expression to our everyday lives?

It seems to me that the world would be a much more friendly and interesting place if that ubiquitous musical freedom, confidence and excitement weren’t the exception – but instead was just normal.

My sincere thanks to the Dicoese of Westminster, which funded my pilgrimage to Madrid and made it possible for me to experience these wonderful expressions of natural musicianship.