Making a difference
Achildren’s choir is using its music tomake a better Dubai. Colin Drury went along to rehearsals to listen in...
The young Voices of Dubai choir.
It is a repertoire that is as varied as it is entertaining.
In a relatively nondescript room in a relatively nondescript block in Karama, a children’s choir is currently rehearsing everything from Mozart to Michael Jackson.
These 36 kids – boys and girls from across Dubai, ranging in age from 5 to 18 – do so with huge smiles on their faces. Even when musical director Kay Dennis cuts the piano to ask for alterations (“sing louder”, “softer”, “less smiling – it’s a sad song!”) their enthusiasm is obvious.
Watching it from the sidelines is an uplifting affair. It is easy to see – or rather hear – why the group has previously sold out shows across Dubai and been played on Abu Dhabi Classic FM. On more than one occasion does this writer begin to feel his toes tapping.
“It’s so much fun to be part of,” one member, 14-year-old Rahul Lobo, notes later. “I can’t imagine how it would feel if the only singing I ever did was in the shower.”
Yet this choir – Young Voices of Dubai – is about much more than just musical merit.
The whole concept is actually less concerned with teaching these wannabe warblers about octaves and tonics (although Kay certainly makes sure they’re proficient in that regard) – it’s more about showing them the importance of helping others.
For the choir was actually founded two years ago by a small group of parents as an initiative to encourage their children to be more aware of the less privileged.
Since then, YVD has staged a show with students from the Manzil Centre For Challenged Individuals and played a key part in a Dubai Mall concert markingWorld Alzheimer’s Day. Its ethos, meanwhile, so impressed the Swiss-based NonViolence Project, the group was asked
‘Performing is great fun, but it’s even better when you remember you’re helping the less fortunate’
to sing at its Middle East launch last year.
“That was a huge honour,” says Kay. “They actually stumbled on us through Google – now they’ve made us their honorary children’s ambassadors for the region.”
More of all that, though, shortly. Because, for now, the group is working on its latest philanthropic project. Next month it is set to stage its biggest show yet – a Christmas spectacular in front of an expected 600 people – with all money raised going to the Dubai Center for Special Needs.
Lined up in three banks, tallest to smallest, the choir members all don uniform T-shirts and uniform grins. Actions and mimes are done with enthusiasm. The fact the younger children occasionally forget their routines and only catch up after a quick glance at their older counterparts only makes it more adorable.
Their songs today include Disney hits (a medley from the film Frozen) and festive favourites (an African take on The Little Drummer Boy included). That’s because the upcoming show, at the Centrepoint Theatre in Mall of the Emirates, will be half songs from movies and half Christmas carols.
In Lady Gaga style, each member of the group will change costume four times.
“Performing is great fun,” says Rahul, a student at Jumeirah College. “I get a little nervous beforehand but I know that I have everyone else around me – that we’re a team – so it’s not something that bothers me too much. It’s just great when you’re on stage, doing something you love, and you look out and you can see people enjoying it too. It’s a lovely feeling. And that’s even better when you remember that you’re actually helping people less fortunate too.” It is a feeling that members of the choir – and their parents – have had since YVD was founded.
Back in September 2012 a small group of Indian mums regularly found themselves talking about two concerns above others: how they wished there were more musical opportunities for their children in Dubai and how they were worried that, living in such a glitzy city, their offsprings might never become aware of the less privileged.
Slowly, a single possible solution to both issues started to emerge.
“We felt that if we formed some sort of musical group, we could use that as a vehicle for also teaching our kids empathy, generosity and helping others,” explains Susannah Fernandes, who was one of those mums and whose 13-yearold daughter Ruth is in the group. “It was like using the singing to make it enjoyable for the children but then saying ‘OK, we’re going to use this activity to make a difference to our community too somehow’.”
While they figured out how exactly that might be, the group approached Kay. Some of the parents had been involved in a similar choir which, under her tutelage, had put on a show back in 2005.
From that, they knew of the 41-year-old’s musical pedigree – the Mumbai-native had achieved an MA in music education at Trinity College, London – and so they asked her to lead this new outfit. She agreed.
“It was such a wonderful idea,” she says today. “How could I refuse. Plus I have two sons myself (Kriskin, 8, and Kyran, 5) so I knew it would be good for them.”
Schools were contacted and adverts placed online early last year, and word spread that rehearsals would be held on a Saturday in January at a community room in
‘The kids from the Manzil Centre sang with real zest and love for music. It was very moving.’
Karama. “We were expecting to get a few kids to turn up, but more than 30 ended up arriving for auditions,” remembers Susannah.
She pauses. “Well… we call them auditions, but as long as the child is passionate about singing, we would never turn anyone away.”
Once rehearsals turned into a routine and a name had been decided, the group pursued its agenda for helping others by approaching the Manzil Centre in Sharjah.
It was proposed the YVD debut show should include students with learning difficulties from the school.
Both parties hoped the benefits would be two-fold: that such pupils would gain in confidence by being part of the performance, while having the children in weekly rehearsals would encourage greater integration between the two sets of youngsters.
It worked. Members of YVD were each buddied up with a different pupil, resulting in firm friendships that have lasted since.
Just as importantly for the choir itself, perhaps, the resulting show was a genuine success. Sing! Sing! Sing! – staged at the Kilachand Studio Theatre in the Mall of the Emirates last September – attracted almost 400 people over two nights and raised more than Dh30,000 for Manzil.
“It was a wonderful evening,” says Suzanne Vaidya, mother of two children – Rhea, 10, and Sasha, 8 – in YVD. “The kids from Manzil sang with real zest and love for music. At one point, they sang ThroughMy Eyes, which was written by [UK talent show] X Factor contestant Scott James, who himself is autistic. It was very moving.”
From there, the group’s reputation has grown and grown. Less than a week after
Sing! Sing! Sing! they were invited to perform at the Middle East launch of the Swiss-led Non-Violence Project, which was taking place at the Capital Club in DIFC. The group had been looking for a children’s choir and found YVD online.
“When they invited us to take part we were delighted,” says Kay. “This is exactly the kind of thing we set up with the idea of doing, so it was a dream, really.”
Soon after they appeared on Abu Dhabi Classic FM’s ThisMorning show before staging Christmas spectacular
Stars Of Noel at the Alliance Francaise Auditorium in Bur Dubai.
The highlight of 2014, meanwhile, has been that aforementionedWorld Alzheimer’s Day concert at The Dubai Mall. They performed a couple of songs that brought many passersby to a standstill and ended with a standing ovation.
“Afterwards, a couple of us were standing in Virgin [Megastore] in our T-shirts and people came up saying how impressed they were,” remembers Angel D’Souza, one of the choir’s oldest members at 18 and a student at Cambridge International School by day. “That felt special.”
And now the group is preparing for this latest Christmas concert. It is hoped some 600 people will turn up.
It will be their biggest yet, and will feature a number of Dubai schools and performance groups including Horizon School, Melody Makers Music, Dance and Fine Arts Centre, The Music Box Performing Arts Training Centre and Repton School. Money raised will go towards Dubai Center for Special Needs.
“It’s a great cause and we’ll be so pleased to help,” says Susannah. “More than that, though, we’re so pleased that youngsters in the choir are also learning the importance of helping others.”
They are, too. We leave the last word for young Rahul.
“The music is very important to me,” he says. “But it is knowing that you are doing good deeds that is most uplifting.”
At home at sea… Ishita Malaviya catches a wave
Ovations and sold-out shows are a regular feature for the group
The idea is to have fun while learning about empathy and charity
Sing! Sing! Sing! in Mall of the Emirates last September saw two sets of youngsters gain confidence and make lasting friendships
Kay Dennis helps the kids find their sound
The talented crew are all set to wow the UAE with a Christmas spectacular on December 6