ACDA conferences, both regional and national, often tend to serve as mileposts as we head along our career path: “Do you remember the national conference when we heard…. Did you hear the interest session at the regional when we first learned about….” The 2012 Eastern Regional conference in Providence, though, was less a milepost for me than a giant direction sign: “STOP! Turn here!”
At that conference, many interest sessions and concerts were devoted to the concept of choral music as community service. I listened enthralled to the sessions devoted to intergenerational choirs, prison choirs, adaptive choirs, choirs for the homeless, choirs for promoting peace in war-torn regions. The more I heard, the more I realized that this was an aspect of our profession I knew so little about but that spoke to me with increasing delight at every session. But how to begin?
It was providence again indeed when I saw a guest choral director posting on Choralnet in December of that year. The Manda Wilderness Community Trust, located in far northwestern Mozambique, was looking for this choir director to come for their annual Choral Festival, held in late July. The position would involve working with the local village choirs, teaching the ensembles a piece to perform en masse, then coordinating the festival and possibly organizing a workshop for the choirmasters for a few days after the festival. I applied New Year’s Eve 2012, and after a few challenging attempts to interview via rainy season solar-powered skype sessions, the trust offered me the position that following February.
I spent the next few months learning the local language, Chinyanja (a variant of Chichewa), finding a piece for the choirs to sing together, and hiking, hiking, hiking to get myself in shape. This remote region is known even in Mozambique as fim do mundo (“the end of the world”), so I knew there were not going to be many forms of transportation much more than walking!
In May, I arrived at Nkwichi, the headquarters of the Manda Wilderness Community Trust. For two-and-a-half months, I logged four hundred and fifty miles of hiking as my guides and I travelled from village to village, sleeping in tents at the compounds of each village mfumu (chief), eating the local food, speaking the language, and working with the choirs – just as here, each with its own distinctive way of working and its own community culture.
With each chorus, I would listen to them perform then ask if there was anything they felt they wanted assistance with. It was important to me never to impose my own ideas of what I felt they might need; and I was glad I came in with that mindset, because by the end of my time there I realized what I would have missed in the culture had I come in with that attitude – not to mention how foolish it would have looked.
I had brought video and audio recording equipment with me, and I used it to record two to four pieces at each and every session. My primary reason for doing this was to show the choirs how they looked and sounded, as they had never had this opportunity to see themselves before. Naturally, however, this meant that in the course of visiting fifteen of the sixteen villages in the region, I amassed a huge video collection of the local choral culture. This I carefully transcribed and translated each time I would return to Nkwichi, with much assistance from the knowledgeable local employees of the trust.
In addition to recording established repertoire, I felt it would be good as a guest director to encourage local composers to consider creating new works for the repertoire. In this endeavor I received enthusiastic support from local choirmaster and trust employee Richard Stephano. At each village in my final honorary speech (an expected custom), I would invite the choirmaster to encourage any choir member who had a composition to come and perform it with their choir when they came to the festival. I would record it, transcribe it, and then submit to earthsongs for consideration for publication upon my return to the United States. How exciting it was when three choirs came to the festival with new works to add to the repertoire!
My last three weeks were spent organizing the festival (Did the rubric sheet make sense for adjudication based on local customs? Were the judges acceptable to the choirs? Did we have enough nsima and mchicha to go around for the meal at the festival?), as well as delivering the workshop with the choirmasters. The total experience was of course life altering. Upon my return I could not wait to begin sharing all I had learned.
I am very grateful that earthsongs enthusiastically embraced the idea of publishing all three composed pieces. Part of my interest session will be the presentation of one of these works, written by Jaime Chiphanga of the Mcondece village choir. Based on my personal experience and observations, I will walk interested colleagues through an authentic rehearsal and performance process for these pieces, all of which would be appropriate for concert or for worship settings and are designed to work for choirs of all ages.
It would be an honor to share this wonderful culture and its music with you in Boston this coming February, four years after that transformational Eastern Division conference in Providence. May your time in Boston provide you with your own revelatory insights, inspiration and meditation, that we may each live a life of service through music wherever that leads us.
MARK CONLEY, a conductor, composer and singer, has conducted numerous ensembles from professional opera companies to high school and middle school ensembles. He has also served as music director for numerous theater companies as well as performing as an opera and oratorio soloist. At the University of Rhode Island he serves as Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities. He made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut in the spring of 2009. The Summer of 2013, he served as guest choral director for the choral festival in the Manda Wilderness of Mozambique, working for three months in this remote region in order to help present a choral concert in late July. He blogged about his experiences at www.intrepidconductor.weebly.com.