Hallelujah! Mumbai's choirs are singing a new tune

Published: 23 December, 2013 07:21 IST | Shinibali Mitra Saigal |

Choral music has evolved since the time when it meant a group singing in harmony to the keys of a piano. Today, choirs use instruments as diverse as tablas, manjiras and saxophones, and incorporate genres like Jazz, Hindustani and Indian folk. Shinibali Mitra Saigal spoke to three city choirs that are riding this wave of change, and offering listeners an uplifting experience

The Salvation Singers
In 1997, a group of like-minded individuals -- comprising mainly students and professionals -- got together to participate in the All-Bombay Parish Talent Hunt competition. The practice sessions, which were held in a quaint cottage in Dadar, were so much fun that the group decided to form a formal choir called, The Salvation Singers. Dylan D’Souza, the conductor of Salvation Singers says that the group is as diverse as it can get with people from varied social and religious backgrounds joining in as well as young teens and young-at-heart senior citizens. “We are however bound by a singular love of music and song.” When the Salvation Singers began their foray into Choral music, D’Souza informs that they would rely on compositions and CDs that were available in the music stores. “With the advent of online resources, we have a range of music at our disposal. There is also a chance to incorporate various instruments into the music,” he says. This has in turn led to a lot of innovations and experimentation. Initially, the Salvation Singers relied only on the piano as an accompaniment, but of late they have also included the ukulele, the guitar (bass and acoustic), saxophone and even the tabla in their music. D’Souza adds that they have also begun pushing the boundaries of Choral performance by incorporating a range of musical styles across eras. “We’ve sung sacred pieces, Classical Opera, Pop and Jazz. There are songs from as far back as the 1700s and this contemporarising of Choral music is being seen across many choirs now,” he says. Though the face of Choral music is changing and D’Souza says that it is also being embraced he feels that the essence of sacred music is to enhance the atmosphere of prayer, “As long as you keep this in mind while incorporating new soundsyou cannot go wrong.”

One of the participating choirs at the 10th Annual festival of Choral Sacred Music. Pic/Sameer Markande

Cadenza Kantori Choir
It's a nippy winter evening but inside Bandra’s St Peters Church, warmth and good cheer pervade. A group of youth ranging between 15 and 17 are rehearsing for the choir festival that will be held inside the church the next day. The group is the Cadenza Kantori Choir. Since 1980, Celeste Cordo has been preparing choir groups and even set up the children’s choir The Gleehive, comprising school going children. Then, in2004 she read about an international sacred music festival,and decided that it would be a good idea to form a youth choir group, and Cadenza Kantori was born. Celeste says that she likes working with younger people because young voices are moulded in a certain ‘sound’, and it is difficult for an older person who is set in his / her ways of singing to adapt tothis. Over the years, Cadenza has developed a distinctive style. “I decided to incorporate a harmonic element into the Indian melodies being sung at sacred gatherings in the church in different states of India and thus, evolved the music that Cadenza Kantori has now become well-known for -- Indian Sacred Choral Music,” elaborates Celeste. Of the pieces in their repertoire, the lyrics or text of some are specially translated from particular church prayers in English to Indian languages of their choice, or are taken from texts of famous Indian poets or saints. The only instruments used, if any, would be percussion instruments like manjira, duff, or chiplee. Celeste feels that sacred music is supposed to uplift the hearts of people, and draw them closer to God and each other. “True sacred music leaves one feeling complete and one with God and fellow human beings,” she says. She feels that a taste for what is appropriate must be developed at a young age, and then, one can successfully incorporate new elements.

Crowds thronged St Peters Church in Bandra on December 14 and 15 for the 10th Annual festival of Choral Sacred Music. Pic/Sameer Markande

St pius x church choir
More than four decades ago, in 1971, a group of Catholic musicians and singers came to settle in the St Pius X housing colony in Mulund (W). It was only in order for them to come together and form the St. Pius X Parish Choir. This choir believes in maintaining the essence of sacred music and their aim is to bring people closer to God and help them participate wholeheartedly in the Mass. Every Sunday, the choir performs at mass as well as at feasts, church events and other liturgical services. There are nearly 35 members in this choir, with the youngest member standing at 15 and the oldest at 75. Rhea Pinto, assistant head and keyboardist in the choir says that until the late 1970s, the parish choir sang the entire mass in Latin with four-voice settings (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass), in keeping with the custom at the time. The focus was on the Gregorian chant. With time, the language changed, and by the mid-1980s, almost all hymns were sung in English. The church acquired its first electronic keyboard in 1987. As contemporary Gospel music entered Catholic churches during the Charismatic Renewal, the choir adopted these new styles of singing. In 1991, when Hazel Toscano, the present choir director was appointed ,she introduced singing in five voices, the fifth being the Mezzo-Soprano. Unlike a lot of other Mumbai choirs who have moved from liturgical music to popular music, the St Pius X Choir has shifted from popular tunes to more comprehensive sounds and meaningful texts. “Our focus is now on music that is liturgically appropriate and scripture-based,” shared Pinto. The choir sings in several languages, with styles ranging from the timeless Gregorian chant to A Capella singing, and modern Western beats to bhajans, as long as it is in keeping with the guidelines of the Catholic Church. Besides the keyboard, guitars, percussion instruments and even the saxophone accompany them. Pinto feels that a choir’s role is to lead the congregation in singing and ensure they participate in the services.

The St Pius X Choir during a night vigil choir recital inside the parish church

The stop-gaps choir
Alfred D’Souza has put his heart and soul in propagating thelove for Choral and orchestral music. Singing since he was four, he has used music as a facilitator for organising charities as well. The Stop-Gaps Choir earned acclaim across the world, but what sets apart this choir is D’Souza’s uniqueness to fuse Indian motifs into Western Choral forms and extend his connect across a wide spectrum of audiences across age groups and music leanings. The hugely popular Stop-Gaps Choral Festival, a must-attend on Mumbai’s Choral calendar, is currently in its 30th year.

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