How on earth am I going to get the funds to go to a music competition in Wales, I mused?
A fourth of my choir cannot even afford the modest choir fees that I charge. Was it too wild an idea? Dare I tell the kids? Do I dare approach the parents? The long and the short of it was that the Parents’ meeting went very well. The room filled with excited chatter- we will raise the money. Yes I said, we can beg, borrow but we will not steal. We would do a Christmas Concert, some food fests, kids would sing at the AIR (All India Radio) and also do recordings for Doordarshan to raise funds. Elections were not far off so we set off with our begging bowls to meet potential sponsors (we were not successful in the latter though!)
Why join a competition in Wales?
The Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is a music festival which takes place every year during the second week of July in Llangollen, North Wales. It was started in 1947 to use the power of music to help bring healing to Europe after the Second World War. I was intrigued to learn that Luciano Pavarotti sang in his father’s choir at one of the Llangollen festivals and then returned forty years later for an iconic performance. The festival indeed has world class standards for amateur choirs. I felt it was time to showcase the choir and knew that the exposure would do them (and me and indeed other groups to follow) a world of good. Additionally, the Khasis have a very special connection to Wales through Welsh Missionaries who came here in the early 1800s. They translated the Bible into Khasi and through their pioneering efforts gave us the written word using the Roman Script and paved the way for Khasi Literature to be born. Their contribution in the field of education, health care, human rights concerns and most importantly in spiritual matters helped build a nation. Like most people of my generation and after, details of what the Welsh did are sketchy. However we grew up singing Welsh hymns in Khasi (in the Presbyterian Church) and were aware of the great Welsh heritage.
Fundraising Christmas Concert (December 16, 2017)
We spent more than half of what we raised in this concert on the sound, lights, hall, chairs, carpet and printing and adverts! Sigh! But this was enough to pay for our audition recording and the entrance fee for the competition, with a little left over for the big spending. What was moving was the sacrificial giving on the part of many friends and supporters. Even daily wage earners parted with 100 rupees and more! Little drops of blessing…
December Audition 2017
We sent in the recordings for the Children’s Folk Category (16 years and below, the International Acapella Category (no age limit) and the Open Category (no age limit). We got through! 20 singers from the Aroha Junior Choir were selected. Their ages varied from 11 to 21 years.
Preparations for Llangollen Wales
So began the journey. There were several things to tackle – Passports, money for the tickets, visas and more.
Challenges and Breakthroughs
Getting the passports in time was a huge challenge. Selecting the appropriate repertoire was crucial and then getting the scores in time to send to Wales was a breakthrough. The internet is a great tool. Had it been even ten years back, I would not have been able to manage all that I had recently.
Then there was an outbreak of chicken pox, one hospitalization and board exams and School Unit tests to contend with. There was a school that initially denied permission for three of my students (all star singers) to go to Wales. That again is another story.
Costumes: Fortunately one of our senior members Gordon Thabah, bless him, offered to do ALL our costumes for a very reasonable rate.
Fund raising: An unexpected boost came from my husband’s School mates, batch of 1971. They had an Alumni meet on May 19 and had some from all over the country and all over the world. One of them sponsored the entire trip for one child! Another sponsored three fourths of the expenses for another child. Quite a number contributed fair amounts. The support and encouragement was incredible! They continue to follow what the choir is doing always egging us on!
In between the kids also sat for their first term exams; some till the day before we left!
My mother was in and out of hospital on certain weeks as she is a heart patient. Sometimes days would stretch into endless nights. I began to develop hip problems and had to go for physiotherapy.
The last straw: Two children aged 11 and their mums were denied visas at the last minute due to technical mistakes in application. We set off on our travels with gloom and great trepidation. In the meantime my long-suffering, (backbone of the Choir) husband Barkos and I are constantly on the phone ringing any and everyone who might be able to get visas for the two kids and their mums. How on earth would we manage without Vanessa the only one who could hit the highest notes in the Acapella section? Someone had to compensate for Shanessa as well.
And so we set off: 18 singers, 5 mums, a male chaperone called Mason, Barkos and I. Tooni Gill one of the mums accompanying us writes:
“Dressed in the striking yellow and blue Aroha travel uniforms, each child carried a visible haversack of essentials and an invisible one of dreams. Goodbyes were uttered, prayers were made and songs were sung as the bus left Pauline Warjri, the Director’s house. Cars followed the bus along with a wistful hope of victory”.
2nd July Llangollen, Wales
The ride from Heathrow to Wales is awesome for the kids (for all of them and the mums it was the first time abroad!). The coach has a loo! Fancy that! But everything is expensive they realise. When we stop for breakfast at the motorway service station they look at the food prices before they order.
We arrive at the Llangollen hostel run by Arlo Dennis and his friends. It is a cottage with a lounge that has a piano (good! We can practice!). This is useful for we still have songs and parts to rearrange, a kitchen cum dining area, laundry facilities and some ensuite bedrooms. It feels like home.
Tooni Gill writes: “The house was fragrant with the scents of big colourful flowers and the front yard was glorious offering of absolutely wonderful blooms that welcomed us. Interesting slate gravel decorated the ground and we enjoyed the constant drama of speeding cars and two wheelers as we sat at a wooden table and gazed at the street and the flower filled petrol pump and store just opposite our house”. Soon we had two wonderful visitors, Merle Hunt and Maureen Gambles two lovely friendly ladies who shared tea, information and moments of enjoyment. These new friends proved to be our dear companions who guided us to the market and helped us in significant ways. A walk around the town was a wonderful experience as we saw beautiful churches, houses, shops, interesting notices, and lanterns dripping with flowers. Everywhere the flowers bloomed, every turn of every street we saw the most magnificent flowers.
Llangollen is so clean, whisper the kids. People are so friendly at the Eisteddfod grounds. They are instantly at ease. The country reminds us of the Khasi hills.
3rd July 2018 – The Llangollen Festival begins!
The Festival was opened by Terry Waite who was an envoy of the archbishop of Canterbury, was captured by Hezbollah in 1987 and was imprisoned for five years. He is the President of the Eisteddfod and in his opening speech spoke about the power of forgiveness. This was surely in keeping with the motto of the Eisteddfod. I was moved, having recalled reading about his capture more than thirty years ago.
Before we go on stage I happen to mention to the Stage Presenter Iwan Griffiths of our connection with Wales. He perks up when I mention that a patriotic song that we used to sing as children is actually the Welsh National Anthem! “Would the choir sing it after you perform on stage?”, he asks? “Yes!” I agreed. I watch delightedly as people stand up for their National Anthem. We sing it in Khasi, they in Welsh. Astonishment on some of the audiences’ faces! I am quite emotional at the piano.
4th July 2018 – A8 Children’s Folk Category (16 years and under)
The three oldest boys 18 years and above cannot sing in this category. Meba (21 years) plays the little drum that I bought from Commercial Street in Bangalore. Hassel (20 years) turns the pages. Adel (19 years) conducts. We cannot do a sound check. Nobody is allowed a sound check I am told. I cannot hear them from where I am sitting. The singing swells. The audience claps and I feel they have done well.
A8 Children’s Folk Song Category
Sadly, the Aroha Junior Choir did not make it in this category.
5th July 2018- A5 International Acapella Category (no age bar)
Yay! We won first place in the International Acapella Category!
We were elated. I couldn’t believe my ears. Venetia’s (one of my best soloists) Mum Bridget, was the first to greet me. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she hugged me tight. Others gathered round. I was pushed to the stage to get the trophy. When I returned Bridget took a look and gasped! – Oh we came first! (She initially thought we came second) She turned round again, cried once more and gave me another hug!
7th July 2018- A5 Open Category (min number of singers -16/no age bar)
We were the smallest group in terms of numbers, stature and probably had some of the youngest singers (11-12 yrs). It was felt good to be placed 4th in the Open category!
Performances and Experiences outside the stage
On our way to the grounds a blue car passed us by and someone shouted our very clearly “KHUBLEI!” (God Bless you in Khasi). We were startled! Later, we discovered that it was Christy Fitzsimons an Irishman from Dublin, Ireland whose wife Jenny is half Khasi (the other half Scottish). They came all the way to support us! We enjoyed our time with them! Jenny is related to the three boys in the picture Hassel, Adel and Rezel.
We also had Khumi Burton an old friend (originally from Manipur) drive down from Wilmslow Cheshire to support us.
Danny Pariat (from Shillong) came from Aberystwyth and brought his cousin Bill Wallace and his wife Annie to support the Choir.
Altogether more than 40 choirs from Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand participated. Various dance groups also took part in the traditional dance competitions.
My Choir are quite in awe of the Stellenbosch Choir from South Africa that won the open Category. They have won the Choir of the World in past years as well as being the Champions of the World Choir Games (the biggest Choral festival there is). They note the discipline and respect with which the choir members treat their conductor- Hmmmm- I say to them! The choir had the opportunity to meet with other musicians of the highest caliber, gaining exposure to world standards in choral singing and solo repertoire. Interacting with people from little-known cultures and making friends with them was an enriching experience. Most importantly they saw how talent and dedication was respected and valued.
The choir also visited the Pendine Residential Centre, an old people’s home in Wrexham. The residents were very glad to have the choir sing for them.
This was one of the most meaningful visits we had. To bring joy to the elderly residents was the highlight of the children’s experience. Music is meant to bring joy especially to those who are bound by frailties of age, or ill health or debilitating circumstances.
On the last day all participants took part in the Eisteddfod Parade, marching, singing and dancing through the streets of Llangollen each with their national flags. The festival closed with concert by Van Morrison.
We were very fortunate to have won a bursary from the Llangollen Eisteddfod organisers which helped us pay for part of the accommodation in Wales.
Our host Josie Davis was without exaggeration the most patient we have ever met. She put up with our absent mindedness and made sure we were on time for all events.
Two more surprises awaited us – At the Pavilion doors was a tall kindly looking gentleman who introduced himself as Dr. Gywn Evans. Dr. Evans has been to Shillong to volunteer at the Roberts hospital (where I was born) many times. He was surprised and delighted the name of a choir from Shillong in the programme. He and his wife Mary offered to take us to see the home of Thomas Jones, the first Welsh Missionary to the Khasi hills in the early 1800s. Mary alights from her black station wagon which she fondly calls the beast dressed in the Khasi traditional “dhara” in our honour!
The second surprise came in the form of Richard Huelin, the President of the Lion’s Club. He got the wind of the Aroha choir from India and thought- who better to give a generous donation that the club had reserved for some African children who could not get visas than to them! We had a solemn and heart warming handing over the cheque ceremony in the Lion’s Club tent (den!).
8 July 2018: UPMINSTER (The Aroha Project. London)
We leave Wales at about 8 am, a little sad, but now we are looking forward to LONDON!
Here we come Upminster Methodist Church: Lo and behold my friend, colleague and opera singer Joanna Marie Skillet is waiting at the Compound with her family and supporters holding an INDIAN FLAG. Joanna and I worked together in Switzerland in 2013 mentoring artists (my senior choir were some of the artists) Joanna organised a sold-out concert for the 8th July.
Joanna spent months preparing to get Aroha to London. Her attention to detail was amazing. She planned out what repertoire we would do together. We used Skype and WhatsApp and she introduced her pupils to my pupils. She planned every detail right down to menus, what the children would like to drink, where we would go for sight-seeing, and the presents the kids would receive! Months before she had asked my kids to name at least 10 places they would like to see in London. Someone asked for the Statue of Liberty!
She knocked on many doors for support and even started a crowd funding appeal on the internet for just 500 pounds. When the Khasi and the Northeastern (Indian) community in London heard about it they eagerly joined in. The 500 pounds was met in a few days. Spearheaded by Bremley Lyngdoh and Ashish Paul they asked Joanna to raise the bar and soon they all contributed along with many of Joanna’s friend as much as 2040 pounds!
The choir got to sing with two of her special pupils Syklar Bailey and Dillon Buckley. Three of her professional singer friends Ian Beadle, Baritone (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), Chloe J Treharne, Mezzo Soprano (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) Bradley Travis, Baritone (Royal College of Music) and Toshan Nongbet (my former student now at Royal college of Music, London). Dave Jennings, Percussion (Cardiff University), Dave Eaten, Piano (Royal College of Music, Musical Director of Charles Court Opera) and Violetta Barrena, Violin (Royal Academy Of Music).
According to Joanna:
“The atmosphere in the Church that day was incredibly special, and everyone was touched by the sheer talent and hope that this next generation of musicians brought.”
In the audience we were overjoyed to see our Khasi friends at the concert some wearing their “dharas” to support us! Gillian Humphries OBE (she is an Opera singer) who I had the privilege of once accompanying in Caux, Switzerland in the summer of 2006 was there too and as one of our sponsors. To add to the icing on the cake my favourite teacher (my class teacher in Loreto Convent, Shillong 1973- a 100 years ago!) Kathleen Hayden was there with her husband. I had not met her since then. When I mention her my eyes well up with tears and I see her dabbing her eyes.
9 July 2018: A beautiful day in London
After a sumptuous breakfast in Joanna’s parents lovely garden we set off for London but not before Joanna and her Dad, Ron surprised us with gifts. Among this storehouse were red hats with AROHA LONDON inscribed on them! It will be easy to spot everyone.
More surprises were in store- waiting for us in town was John Noronha, one of our choir member’s cousin from Reading. He is a certified tour guide. And what a guide he proved to be! We were engaged every minute as he had a way with historical trivia.
To add to the fun that day the Aroha Choir broke a record. John mentioned that he had once fitted in 13 people into a phone booth. In the sweltering heat the kids stood on each other’s shoulders and 14 kids stuffed themselves into a London phone booth!
And then the biggest surprise! We went to see the Phantom of the Opera. After the show we were invited backstage to meet with the cast and we took a picture with them! They had a poster all ready and signed for us as well as two autographed copies of the programme to take back for the two little girls Vanessa and Shanessa who were denied visas. All this- because they were friends of Joanna!
10 July 2018
A TRULY WARM INITIATIVE FROM OUR FRIENDS IN READING FOR THE AROHA JUNIOR CHOIR
We are profoundly grateful to the NORONHA family in Reading for spearheading the arrangements for a wonderful concert on the 10th July 2018 at the United Reformed Church. Not only was it a concert, it was a sit down three course dinner for about 130 people! On the night before the concert we walked into the Noronha home to the delicious aroma of cooking. The entire family and some of the friends who were helping slept in the wee hours of the morning. Weeks and months before this Mel used to be up all night writing e-mails, planning and asking people for help. Jack was our father figure always up before the others and chaperoning the kids back and forth and ferrying things and people tirelessly. You and Mel took the trouble to meet us at Heathrow and put in the coach. You also came back to the airport to see the kids off. Without your invaluable support our journey would have been difficult.
Initially people had signed up for Melita Norohna’s famed cooking. I think they were pleasantly surprised by the children’s singing! There was sumptuous food for the body as well as for the soul. The feedback from a spell bound (I was told) audience was a HUGE encouragement to the choir and to me. Everything was so thought fully arranged. Each child seated at designated tables with guests. The conversations were warm, candid and a great experience for the young and old alike. The children were given presents of chocolates, books, cookies and more by the guests and were made to feel loved and inspired. Presents for Shanessa and Vanessa (aged 11 years) who were denied visas were also given. The choir also gave out gifts from Shillong- tea, handmade runners and mufflers, bags etc. In turn the guests said that the music was refreshing and very moving.
Among the guests were Gwenan Burson who was born at the Roberts Hospital. Her parents were Welsh Missionaries who lived in Shillong in the 60’s. We were very happy to have Martin Emslie and his wife Lyn (one of the examiners of the London College of Music who has examined in Shillong and who will be coming there in August). It was truly an International gathering- residents in Reading who are from the Philippines, Nepal, Nigeria, France, India, the British Isles, Sri Lanka and more.
John Noronha who is an actor and owns a music theatre company hosted the concert and also gave us the most amazing tour of London and regaled history in such an interesting way that some of our English friends who went along said that there was always something new they had learned! The highlight of the sightseeing was the trip to Oxford. John arranged a treasure hunt for all. And divided us into five groups. The mums got hopelessly lost and went shopping instead! The children did far better than the adults. Thank you John, you are such an amazing personality!
Jack Noronha is Carmo Noronha’s older brother (Carmo is the Director of Bethany Society, Shillong. His daughter Denise is part of the choir). He and his wife Mel and their daughter Dr Maryann and their son John Bosco gave their all to help house 26 people of the Aroha Junior Choir. People opened their homes and hearts to the choir and provided a place of stay, food and shower facilities all at short notice. Here is my round of thanks to all who made our stay at Reading so comfortable! If I missed out any one please forgive me.
Roget Clark for the sound
Alina Rai for the Anderson Baptist Church
Judith Wheatley and Gaye Rees for the Anderson Baptist Church.
Malcolm Pierce for the Bedding which is so important and Sr Helen for the Gym Mats
Maryann, Khusboo, Jack and Alex for cooking, providing Samosas.
Not forgetting Surender and Isabel for washing!
Very importantly- Lynn Palfrey who came with all the breakfast and took the children for showers, also the sports centre to give it so willingly without any charge
Thank you for puddings and food for special Diets – Margaret Goddard, John and Isabel
I would say it took hundreds of people to make this trip happen! That is what music making is all about. A community effort. We are still raring to go. The Aroha kids have been transformed by what they experienced. God bless you all!