ladies of lee

Had it not been for a poster at the door of the Pedro Fernandes music shop down the road, I might have missed the Ladies of Lee concert at the Goa State Museum, and what a shame that would have been. The choir sang with so much feeling and sincerity, of course, but also with such precision and intonation. It was so impressive that I went to their concert at the Se Cathedral Old Goa as well.

It reminded me in some ways of the Yale Whiffenpoofs concert. In many ways, they were poles apart, of course: the Ladies of Lee obviously all-female, while the Whiffenpoofs were a male choir. One a gospel choir devoted to praise and worship, the other exuberantly barbershop, glee club. But both were American and celebrated that fact.

While the Whiffenpoofs gave us Cole Porter, Manhattan Transfer and Paul Simon, the Ladies of Lee sang the bewitching works of Rosephanye Powell (“Still I Rise”) and Stacey V. Gibbs (“Ride the Chariot”), both of whom happen to be African-American. This is worth mentioning because both “Still I Rise” and “Ride the Chariot”, while they can be seen as spirituals, are so much more as well. If one visits the website of Rosephanye Powell, we are informed that although the lyrics are hers, “Still I Rise” was inspired by the eponymous poem by poet laureate Maya Angelou: “It is a women’s anthem, saluting the strength of women to persevere”, the website tells us. But Angelou’s lines in my opinion are so much more powerful, so it is not clear why Powell took Angelou’s title, but not the poem itself. The original poem makes clear references to slavery: “Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise”; “I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide….Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise”; “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”

“Ride the Chariot” can also be seen in two ways. The chariot can be seen as a means of spiritual ascent, common in Judeo-Christian imagery, and indeed in ancient Greece and India as well. But the Chariot is also a symbol of deliverance, of the “freedom train”, the Underground Railroad, the chain or network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved people of African descent in the United States to escape to freedom, often to Canada, the “Promised Land”.

Both choirs have the unmistakable stamp of American choral training. The emphasis not only on intonation, which is a given, but also vowels and diphthongs, enunciation, embouchure, clear entries, and making musical and literal sense of the lyrics, all these were common to both.

In both the Ladies of Lee concerts I attended, at the Goa State Museum Patto and at the Se, they sounded best in my view when they sang “unplugged” and let the performance space do its resonant magic. Even the Patto venue, not the most flattering acoustic venue, came to life when the singers spread themselves in a circle around the auditorium. And at the Se, when they did this in the central space encircling some of the audience, the effect was truly celestial.

In this particular respect, one was also reminded of the Chor Universität Wien (the Vienna University Choir) led by Vijay Upadhyaya when they performed at Taleigão church some years ago. The Viennese choir was “unplugged” throughout of course, but they too at the end assembled along the sides of the church and let the whole shrine resound with their voices. And Upadhyaya deliberately positioned the singers such that the voice groups (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) were scattered randomly across the “circle”. This ensured that the harmonies were heard democratically by everyone when they did this, but it also meant that each singer knew his or her part so absolutely well that s/he did not need the “safety-in-numbers” approach that lesser choirs are known to resort to, clinging like worker bees around one “queen” who is more confident of the part.

And what binds all the aforesaid (the Ladies of Lee, the Yale Whiffenpoofs and the Chor Universität Wien) together? It is glaringly self-evident: they are all university choirs in the truest sense of the term, culled respectively from the ranks of current students of Lee University Cleveland Tennessee, Yale University New Haven Connecticut, and Vienna University. In a sense they encompass a whole range of possibilities: all-female, all-male, and mixed-voice choirs. But every single member of all of them is an incumbent student of their university; which is as it should be. It is their youthfulness that gives a university choir its vitality, its pulsing energy and sound. Anything else would be a travesty of the term “university choir”. Furthermore, a university-funded ensemble that did not have its own students solidly in its ranks, with fresh students entering each year to replace those who had completed their university education, would be a squandering of its finances. It would also imply that suitable voices could not be found among the hundreds of students in its rolls, which makes no statistical sense.

I was fortunate to tour South India with the Chor Universität Wien after the Goa concert, and got up close with the singers. They were students of disparate academic streams: architecture, art, history, political science, theoretical physics, with just a sprinkling of music majors, and even fewer with any prior musical background. A similar potpourri of backgrounds was evident among the Yale Whiffenpoofs and the Ladies of Lee. The testimonies of the Lee Ladies revealed not only this, but diverse socio-economic and geographical origins, all unified through the making of music as an ensemble, a tightly-knit team.

And my experience on tour with the Chor Universität Wien is that they became a family as well, forging friendships and really getting to know each other as individuals through their university years, even though they quite possibly might never have been aware of each others’ existence on such a huge campus were it not for the choir and the intense regular rehearsal schedules that brought them together. These friendships have persisted even after leaving the university and therefore the university choir.

Dr. Jonathan Rodgers, conductor of the Ladies of Lee and Vijay Upadhyaya work with their respective choirs closely, intensely and regularly round the year. No conductor is parachuted in from outside for just a short period to stage a hoopla of concerts before everyone disbands again. A choir, like any ensemble, is more than the mere sum of its parts. The whole organic unit becomes the instrument, and this is not possible to achieve without very regular and intense work through the year. A group of people breathing in synchrony becomes one much larger living breathing being. The warm-up exercises, the almost yoga-like centering of one’s voice to mesh with everyone else’s, the laser-point focus upon the collective sound, these make a truly great choir.

The Yale Whiffenpoofs go one further, with each outgoing batch choosing their successors, including their leader from the junior batches of university students.

The Whiffenpoofs are 14 in number, the Ladies of Lee 26 by my count, the Chor Universität Wien employ much larger forces. But all these university choirs drink deep from the fountain of youth, and this is their distinctive USP as well as their raison d’être.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 June 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)