I have recently been very blessed to participate as guest conductor, composer, and artistic advisor with the super wonderful Nai Children's Choir initiative hosted by CultureLink, a local settlement organization. Founded by Fei Tang, the CultureLink Nai Children's Choir (Nai Kids) was created as an arts-based program to support refugee children in fostering pride for their heritage and culture, building new friendships and a sense of belonging, and gaining confidence and skills that will help develop future leaders in a diverse society. I had heard about Nai Kids early in their formation, and then came to know the organization better through a friend and colleague Shireen Abu-Khader. I remember the first time I saw this group in rehearsal, a feeling of exhilaration filled within me. I will be honest, especially seeing children of Muslim heritage singing songs of their lands and heritages with diverse children from the Levant region brought me great joy. I was deeply touched. I felt an immediate connection to the choir and its cause.
To give you a little bit of context, I have sung in choirs (and in congregational group singing in the Ismaili Muslim tradition) throughout my life. I have felt first hand the power of singing with others, building friendships, fostering community, feeling a sense of purpose, meaning and transcendence in the pursuit of a beautiful sound that invokes the divine and harmonizes our physical-spiritual-emotional selves. Whether in congregation or in choral settings I felt like I was participating in an ethical soundscape of some kind rooted in shared human values like listening compassionately, being generous, contributing to a cause greater than yourself and working together for a common purpose. Choir and devotional singing have also helped me transform the negativity of racism into something positive. On top of this all, research has shown that singing in choirs increases serotonin and oxytocin levels, creates a sense of well-being, and even synchronizes heart beats! One can see how, then, I might be motivated to believe that everyone, regardless of their background, must have some opportunity to experience this sense of unity, belonging, social cohesion, friendship and even health!
So, suffice to say, when I saw and heard the Nai Kids sing together so soon after their arrival in Canada, I was thrilled. I saw a spark of hope in their eyes. I felt touched that these children had an opportunity to at least access some of the benefits of singing in choirs. Additionally, I was excited hearing Arabic songs and newly composed songs by Syrian musicians working with the children that showed immense gratitude for Canada, and called out to us all to sing for peace. Knowing that in the culture of choral art, and in society generally, there are still gaps in knowledge production and presentation, resulting in a single story to be told, or partial stories to be told that inadvertently create stereotypes, I was delighted that this choir was fostering pride in their cultural heritage, exploring new expressions of their values, making the art form their own, and telling their stories in a way that wove uniquely coloured threads of knowledge to the tapestry of a plural Canadian society.
Since that first visit with the choir I have definitely been a fan, and now I feel blessed to be involved as a guest conductor for an upcoming concert at the Aga Khan Museum on July 1. Visiting the children every week in three locations (Bloordale, Dundas West, and Victoria Village) for the past two months, meeting Nai's resident musicians/teachers from Syria, working with the choir to co-create a new piece of music, seeing the choir's musical and personal growth and answering the cutest questions ever (ie. Did you know my tooth broke yesterday?) has been quite an experience.
I remember a moment when one of the children discovered their head voice. It was at the end of a rehearsal at the choir's newest location. It was the second or third time I had met this boy around 9 years old. A small group of children were gathered around after rehearsal. Something inside me told me to ask this boy about singing and trying out the head voice. I don't remember exactly what activity I did with him, but whatever it was I saw his eyes sparkle. He had a huge smile on this face. I think I asked him whether he liked what he heard. With a definitive nod he says "YES." After a few words and celebratory high fives I told him how beautiful I thought his voices sounded, and I asked him if he'd be cool with singing in that voice more often. Again, a definitive, "YES!" In that moment, something special happened. I can't explain what but I know it was a moment of recognition of something bigger than ourselves. These are the human moments we all crave. In a world where there is so much talk of walls, barriers, divisions, and difference, it is in these miraculous moments where we find hope. While sometimes challenging, working with the Nai Kids this past few months has reminded me (especially in these kinds of very special moments) of that feeling of connection, belonging, trust, community and even healing that I have always known choral and communal singing to bring. Thank you Nai Kids for this gift!