Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Achildren’s choir is us­ing its mu­sic tomake a bet­ter Dubai. Colin Drury went along to re­hearsals to lis­ten in...

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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

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