In October 2014, I was one among 150 delegates from 28 countries (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first of its kind, a four-day International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland in Stirling. It offered me a unique opportunity to meet like-minded individuals also committed to music education and social empowerment, from a wide range of locations around the world: Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, USA, Venezuela, Vietnam and Wales.
Among that vast community of nations, the Swedish contingent stood out pretty prominently. They kept breaking spontaneously into song at every opportunity, and their infectious enthusiasm got the rest of us singing as well.
One particular song, sung as a canon, became almost the anthem of the conference: “Baboomba”, sung as a Mexican wave, punctuating by rhythmic claps rippling across the hall, or wherever we happened to be.
This is where I first met Cecilia Öhrwall from El Sistema Södertälje, close to Stockholm, Sweden. She already had a connection with India, and had been visiting and working with a music school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She was planning a return trip to India the following year and suggested visiting us at Child’s Play India Foundation in Goa.
Cecilia Öhrwall has composed music for film documentaries and arranged music for choir and orchestra. For over twelve years, she has been playing flute and singing in and writing songs and arrangements for the trio ‘Lite men rätt’ with Esbjörn Öhrwall (guitar) and Ylva Nilsson (cello).
She has been pedagogue at El Sistema Södertälje since its inception in 2012.
Her first visit was with a double-bass playing colleague Katarina Lindgren and her son in 2015. We had just begun a choir project in Santa Cruz at the time, and Cecilia worked with the choir, while Katarina played Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Concerto in E major (Krebs 172) for double-bass, with piano accompaniment, to a small audience in the village.
Obviously impressed with our work, Cecilia returned in 2016 with her 14-member strong choir, the Sångföreningen Qöhr. The choir works to create a platform for children and youth, building bridges over cultural differences, social inequality and national boundaries. It works closely with “Dörren” (The Door), a youth programme that offers young people creative opportunities through singing, theatre, dance, photography, etc. Cecilia is choral director of the Dörren choir as well, and together with Maria Peters of the Gränslösa roster –Voices without Borders, a choir where refugees integrate with the local population quite literally and figuratively, in harmony.
Many of you will remember the delightful benefit concert for Child’s Play of the Sångföreningen Qöhr in 2016 at Menezes Braganza, in which the choir sang a diverse range of repertoire: the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll, Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus, Hey Jude, Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train, Sunny by Boney M, David Bowie’s Life on Mars, a host of Swedish pop songs and more. The concert also featured our Child’s Play children’s and community choirs, and a joint performance of the Sångföreningen Qöhr and our children singing three songs together.
Their benefit concert (today 25 February in aid of Child’s Play, also at Menezes Braganza 6 pm) promises to be just as exciting, running the gamut from classical music to Latin American favourites, and from Stevie Wonder to Swedish pop, and much more.
The concept of making music through ensembles, both orchestra and choir, is central to the ethos of Child’s Play India Foundation. Exactly a month ago, we were happy to welcome our new choral director Claire Hughes from England, with vast experience conducting choirs in England and the United States.
Claire grew up in the South of England, where her interest in music was first expressed through Musical Theatre. Her further studies in music began at the University of Birmingham. Here she found a passion for choral music and learnt more about rehearsing and conducting choirs. As a choral singer, she performed with the Proms Youth Choir, Birmingham University Singers and CBSO Chorus, appearing in the First night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and Choir of the World competition at the International Eisteddfod, among other exciting performances. Her conducting experience started with the University SSA Chamber Choir, leading concerts with them at the Elgar Concert Hall and St George’s Church, Edgbaston. She also held the position of Musical Director with the University of Birmingham Gilbert & Sullivan society in her final year of study.
After the completion of her first degree, she travelled to the USA to pursue a master’s degree in Choral Conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. She sang with three prolific college choirs and was the Graduate Assistant Conductor to Westminster Schola Cantorum. During her time in this position, Schola Cantorum toured the states of Maryland and North Carolina, as well as collaborating with Julliard school at the Lincoln Center in New York. Claire had previously been involved with the Mostly Mozart Festival, again at the Lincoln Center; this involvement was as one of twenty-five conductors in the World Premiere of a thousand-voice piece by David Lang. Her experience with young voices includes her position on the teaching staff for the Westminster Vocal Institute, a summer camp for young aspiring choral singers. She was fortunate to perform in a wide variety of projects as a choral singer in the USA, singing at Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall in New York, and the Verizon Center in Philadelphia, under the batons of Sir Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Jane Glover CBE, to name a few. With the Westminster Choir, she toured the Southern states, worked as a Choral Artist at the Spoleto Festival USA, and performed at the World Symposium on Choral Music, on tour of Spain and Catalonia. Her choral experience extended to early music as a member of Westminster Kantorei, an early music ensemble who featured in the Boston Early Music Festival last year. Their debut album, Lumina, was released in September and is available online.
Claire is thrilled to use her skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of children in Goa and to introduce them to the sense of community that comes with singing together. She was been working at the Child’s Play projects in St. Inez and Caranzalem, and some of them will join the Sångföreningen Qöhr onstage for ‘Flowers and Love’, a heartwarming song written based on a poem by an eight-year-old Swedish child Adam Andersen, that has become the unofficial anthem of El Sistema in Sweden.
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)