“I Will Follow, I Will Lead”: Striking a new tune

Presented by the Choir of S. Thomas’ Preparatory School, “I Will Follow, I Will Lead” will be held at the Auditorium of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority in Kollupitiya from the 7th to the 9th of September at 7 p.m.

I confess, I know very little about music, the theory or the practice. I know even less about choirs and orchestras and for this reason am clueless when it comes to concerts, regardless of the organiser. I vaguely remember milling around the piano during the music period, learning or rather trying to learn the fundamentals, from “Do Re Mi” to “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”. A few years later, having been auditioned by our teacher (we were asked to recite the national anthem, of all things!), I was selected for the choir. I never went, though. The same could have been said of the other clubs and societies I was asked to attend. Never went. Never bothered to. Can’t remember the reason. All I remember is that I came to regret. School life, after all, isn’t just about passing exams. Or for that matter attending classes.

I’ve always been fascinated by choirs. There’s something enchanting, after all, about a group of students or adults singing and complementing each other without missing a beat. It takes an exceptional teacher to spot out who’s out of tune and where exactly he has gone out of tune, and it takes an exceptional cast of altos, sopranos, tenors, and those other voices to deliver a perfect ensemble. I wouldn’t really know. All I know is that choirs have come a long way, with a history that goes back to Classical Antiquity all the way through the Renaissance, the Baroque Era, and the Romantic Eras, giving way to the 20th century, which effectively saw a transition from the church to the secular realm. Choirs are no longer limited to the sacred, in other words. They have entered the mundane world, and they have embraced everyday life. This article is about one such choir and a “musical show” it will unveil later this week.

I Will Follow, I Will Lead - I Will Follow, I Will Lead - 80 Years of . Thomas' Preparatory School

“I Will Follow, I Will Lead” is a “concert” organised by the Choir of S. Thomas’ Preparatory School Kollupitiya that will be held this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Auditorium of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority at 7 p.m. It is the third of three shows held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the school, and the way I see it, it is also the biggest. The first was an orchestral concert (“Gandhara”) and the second a performance of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. “IWFIWL”, on the other hand, will bring about a fusion of the contemporary and the traditional in a bid to shatter misconceptions related to the field (though that is certainly not the motive of the show). To this end, I went to the Sooriya Village two weeks ago, talked with the students, and took down notes. Here’s what I observed.

First, a few details about the hosts. Founded on May 17, 1938 and considered the first preparatory school in Sri Lanka, S. Thomas’ Preparatory houses 800 students (records indicate that it started out with barely a hundred). The Choir houses around 37 or so students (five basses, seven tenors, and seven sopranos, with the rest as altos) and have been limited for the most to Christmas Carols and the year end showcase concert. “IWFIWL” therefore will be “unprecedented”.

What interests me more than the history, incidentally, is the way all those tenors and basses and sopranos and what-not have been trained. I therefore spoke with the choir master at S. Thomas’ Prep, Sanchitha Wickremesooriya, and tried to glean from his the how, what, and wherefore of the culture of music he and the school have more or less facilitated through the choir. I began by asking him as to how, in an era where choirs have moved out of the sacred, school choirs in general have evolved. “Well to be frank, they have transited from the one to the other pretty quickly. Even in public secular schools, choirs existed for the sake of performing carols and other religious services. It’s very different now. Even at schools run on religious lines, choirs have unshackled themselves of religious constraints.”

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I interject here and suggest that the media may have played a role in this evolution, and Sanchitha, with some reservation, agrees. “You can’t really ignore the media. It’s everywhere. Access to the internet has increased, and is now more widespread than ever before here. Kids get their hands on smart phones at a very early age and they surf YouTube for the latest hits. Once you open your eyes to this world, there’s no turning back. On the other hand, I won’t say the media is the only reason for this. There are and have been other more complex factors, considering the state of the world we are in and how the arts have been secularised.”

Reflecting these trends, “IWFIWL” will, interestingly enough, feature contemporary artists: Alien Accent, Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Ridma Weerawardena (at the Sooriya Village I heard and saw the choir perform “Kuweni”, which hands down is one of the most enchanting Sinhala songs I’ve heard from recent times), and Dilan Jayakody. Not that it’ll be limited to modern music alone of course: alongside Sanuka and Ridma, there will be a horde of professional veterans, including Christopher Prins (drums), Melissa Pereira (keyboard), and Shalintha Rodrigo (bass). While I will not reveal the songs that the boys will perform, I will say that they are in keeping with most concerts and shows of this kind, in concert with both popular and serious tastes.

Perhaps one of the most lamentable trends among young people is their (blissful) lack of awareness of “traditional music”. We celebrate contemporary music and diss (for the lack of a better term) old songs. We savour the tunes of popular artists and cast aside or deride the work of the old masters. In that sense, the choirmaster has done his part well with the choir at Prep: having taken over the choir two and a half years ago, he has, among other things, conducted workshops for the students with such renowned veterans as Kavichandran Alexander (the first Sri Lankan to record and produce several Grammy Award winning albums), and has instilled a firm, rigid, but at the same time casual culture of discipline among the choir performers. “Even if you have a superb voice and the group can’t do without you, if you are late or you don’t attend, you’re out. That’s the rule I’ve set down for these boys,” Sanchitha tells me.

Eager to find out more, I talk with some of those boys. From Grade Six to Grade Nine, they represent, I think, a specific milieu, largely urbane and English speaking. They have the same tastes, they hold dear the same artists, though some of them profess admiration for the old classical masters. No, this is not to suggest that it is this milieu which will come out at “IWFIWL”. Far from it. But it is difficult to divide the music from the milieu, most of the time, which is why credit must be given to the team behind the show for having diversified the range of songs we will hear this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. One boy in particular, Ayon (who was born in Mulleriyawa and is boarded at the school hostel), however, freely admits his preference for local “old” music, especially the Gypsies. As for the rest, well most of them have their icons, ranging from Michael Jackson (I mean, who wouldn’t have him as an icon?) to Ed Sheeran and to lesser heard of bands and vocalists like Twenty One Pilots and Sam Smith. They also indulge in different activities, moreover, from cadetting to scouting to the orchestra. All in all, a veritable mishmash.

If “I Will Follow I Will Lead” (Sanchitha on the meaning of the title: “We want to bring out the message that in a school choir, you must lead and you must also be led, so as to promote unity and harmony”) seems a tad limited to one institution, that is not the reality. On the contrary, the boys will be sharing the stage on all three days with different guest choirs: Ladies College on Friday, Bishops College on Saturday, and Visakha Vidyalaya on Sunday. This will be in addition to the choirs from the other S. Thomas’ choirs, from Mount Lavinia, Bandarawela, and Gurutalawa. Given this, and given what I’ve outlined and sketched out above, there’s really nothing here that you can’t look forward to. As a final point then, I can only quote the verdict that the boys (including the choir leader, Sarinda Abeynaike) told me: “It’s been great. So far.”

UDAKDEV1@GMAIL.COM
By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

A freelance writer and a commentator who has written to several publications in Sri Lanka; Ceylon Today, The Nation, The Daily News, and The Sunday Island, particularly on the performing arts.

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