It all started when I heard a story on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition on December 20, 2015 about an unusual choir in Berlin that was made up of equal numbers of German singers and refugees from the wars in the Middle East. Called the “Begegnungschor” (roughly translated as the “getting-to-meet-you” choir), they sang songs from each other’s traditions, working hard to learn both the language and style of unfamiliar music as an opportunity to overcome the isolation and prejudice the refugees face every day.
I was looking for the right destination for the next international tour for the 30-voice Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. Previous tours over the last twenty years (to Mexico, Turkey, Ghana, Poland, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela) had been centered on collaborations with local choirs. This model allowed students to see how choral music connects with broader elements of culture, history, and community, while also providing a unique form of personal engagement with people living in that culture, even in a short period of time. If we were fortunate enough to be welcomed by the Begegnungschor, we could possibly learn a great deal about what happens when people use music as a way of overcoming the inherent tensions in the complex and challenging cultural situation of the refugee crisis Germany is now facing.
We also had with us that year at Bryn Mawr an exchange student from Germany, Nadejda Polcanova, who was happy to make a few initial phone calls to see if the Begegnungschor might be interested in a collaboration. Susanne Kappe, one of the founders and current president of the Begegnungschor, was very cordial in her response to this unexpected inquiry from an American college choir. Her choir was a community choir of volunteers coming from all over Berlin. They were focused on planning week-to-week, not a year in advance. Their overriding priority was developing genuine comradery and trust between the German singers and the refugee singers on as equal a basis as possible. The musical standards for admission to the choir were not stringent, but any German singer applying to join had to bring along a refugee singer to join with them at the same time.
After consulting with founding music director Bastian Holze, Susanne emailed copies of some of their German and Syrian songs to us. It was a fascinating combination of iconic German songs arranged to be sung in a variety of Western and Eastern styles (such as “Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are free), Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the traditional lullaby “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” (The Moon has risen), and the Cold War pop anthem “99 Luftballons” (99 air-balloons) and popular Syrian songs by the popular singer Fairouz, “Nassam Alayna nel-hawa” (The breeze blew upon us) and “Bintish Shalabiyya” (The girl from Shalabiyya had hazel-brown eyes). In turn, the Begegnungschor offered to learn a simple arrangement of the African-American Spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot.”
I was excited to give the students another opportunity to sing music in Arabic style – several of them had sung with the choir two years before in the premier of Lebanese composer Marcel Khalifé’s Songs of the East with the Al Bustan Seeds of Culture takht ensemble, the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Keystone State Boychoir. The violinist Hanna Khuri had worked closely with the students then on learning the sounds of the Arabic language and musical style unfamiliar to us all. We invited Hanna to join us again, both to teach us the Fairouz songs and to join us on the trip as one of the faculty leaders. As a Palestinian-Israeli in the middle of the path to US Citizenship, Hanna was unable to obtain the necessary visa to join us on the trip, but he did work with the students several times on the Fairouz songs, performing them at the annual Family Weekend Concert at Bryn Mawr in October (click for video). On that occasion he also performed the violin solo in a new arrangement I composed for the tour which used the violin to connect a Mahler song in German with a Syrian song in Arabic, both having the theme of the singer asking a bird to tell his distant beloved how much he missed her. (As noted in student comments after the tour, we were delighted to see the Germans singing along with the Mahler and the Syrians singing along with “Ya teera tiri”.)
I also reached out at that time to bi-co German department chair Azade Seyhan who recommended incoming Bryn Mawr German professor Qinna Shen to join us as a faculty leader. Qinna had recently led a group of students from Miami of Ohio University on a winter-break trip to Berlin. She connected us with Jessica Eucker of the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) in London, who coordinated all the local arrangements for the trip. Qinna also helped connect us to two other choral collaborations to fill out our week: a community choir in nearby historic Potsdam, Germany (the Internationalen Chor) and a prize-winning university choir in Berlin, the Kammerchor des Collegium Musicum.
The day after arriving in Berlin, Jessica had arranged for a bus tour of the city with Harold Zawuski, a tour guide very popular with groups of inquisitive university students. This would be our first of many opportunities to connect with the history of the Holocaust (especially the overwhelming Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe [photo above] and the Berlin Wall (including the painted section of the wall with its famous “Bruderkuss” [photo above]). Later visits would include the DDR Museum with its history of life under the East German Stasi police, the Jewish Museum (with its iconic architecture by Daniel Libeskind), the restored Reichstag Building, the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and the Topography of Terror Museum on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. There was time for the stunning art and antiquities of the Pergamon and several nearby museums. It was a deep immersion in the rich history encompassing both the heights and depths of European culture and civilization in this historically pivotal but surprisingly intimate city.
But we also visited sites related to the very recent history of the refugee crisis as well as the terrorist attack that had taken place just weeks earlier at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market. Impromptu memorials at this site had signs asking “Warum?” which was the title of one of the Brahms motets we chose to bring on our tour program [photo above]. After visiting these memorials, we were invited to sing the German Christmas carol “Tausend Sterne sind ein Dom” and the spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot” in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church next to the site. [ see video here]
The next day we travelled to historic Potsdam for our first musical collaboration. Having recently performed a challenging Christmas program, the Internationalem Chor wasn’t ready for another concert so soon, but was happy not only to give us a personal tour of the historic Frederick the Great palace grounds, but to host an informal gathering involving the choirs taking turns singing, concluding with a few of their traditional Christmas carols sung together. The singing took place in a cozy, candlelit basement room of a local community center [see photo above]).
We were then treated to a pot-luck supper prepared by members of the choir with long conversations to follow. While we did have three students and two leaders fluent in German, and a number of the host singers spoke some English, this was the first in many occasions for the students to struggle with the art of making conversation with someone when you speak only a little of each other’s language. But without the shared singing together (in each other’s languages) there would have been no conversation at all. [see photo above]
Mid-week we had our first rehearsal with the Begegnungschor. They rehearsed weekly in a church that offered them a large parish hall to work in. While we arrived all at once, the Berlin singers came from work across all parts of the city at different times both before and after the rehearsal began. Bastian Holze, their charismatic conductor (trained in both Germany and the US with a naturally affinity for jazz and pop styles) got us started with the physical ice-breakers of elbow-bumps and knee-bumps accompanied by vocal sounds [see video here].
This was followed by some whimsical vocal improvisation designed to get everyone singing right away without inhibition or judgement. Our students found the ease and enthusiasm of the Begegnungschor singers a bit of a pleasant jolt, both energizing and infectious. It was clear that whatever musical inhibitions we had could be left at the door. Bastian then launched into a rehearsal that was both intensive and relaxed. He was pleasantly surprised that we had prepared seven songs to sing with them, six from their repertoire, and so we launched right in. One of our students joined the band of strings, percussion, and piano with her violin as we dove into to both German and Arabic songs. We divided into sections to learn “Swing low, sweet chariot” together, with the soprano section sweetly and confidently singing the verses.
After rehearsal, we shared soda and snacks together in an adjoining room, and this time the conversational challenge was truly multi-lingual, with English, German, Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish all flying back and forth. Many of the students came away with their first perspective on the lives of the refugees singers, both before and after fleeing violence in their homelands [see student reflections].
The next night we had a very different kind of rehearsal. The chamber choir of the Collegium Musicum Berlin was made up of undergrads and grad students from two large universities (the “Free” and “Technical” universities of Berlin). We rehearsed together on the stage of a university auditorium – a Mendelssohn motet under their conductor Donka Miteva and two Moses Hogan spirituals under my direction (we had a miscommunication about which spiritual we were going to do, so we sang both, much to the delight of the students, who all love the music of Moses Hogan). After rehearsal we went off to a restaurant together as is the custom after their rehearsals.
The concert was in an historic church across from the Philharmonie (concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic) that had been restored after the war with a replica exterior and modern interior. The church was packed with an audience of regular Berlin concertgoers. The Collegium choir regularly and successfully competed in choral competitions with a challenging repertoire of modern northern-European “tone-cluster” music, sung by memory with impeccable sound, intonation, subtlety, and conviction. Our American choir sang a somewhat more varied program ranging from the Early Renaissance to the present day, and including our songs in Arabic and a selection of African-American Spirituals. The German-speaking students in our choir gave brief introductions to our varied selections, explaining why we had come to Berlin and our desire to learn about the complex intersections of music and culture. The capacity audience was attentive and enthusiastic from beginning to end, and dinner together after at a local pub went on for a few hours after with much more singing. [see photos above and videos here]
The location and time of our concert with the Begegnungschor was not settled until the middle of the week. The choir wanted to hold the concert in the midst of a refugee settlement so that refugees could easily attend the concert. We ended up singing in a large, old City Hall building that had been repurposed into a refugee housing center (the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Notunterkunft I'm ehemaligen Rathaus Wilmersdorf (ASB Emergency Accommodation for Refugees in the former Wilmersdorf City Hall)). Notice of the concert had been sent out in advance, but to draw as many as we could to the relatively small former courtroom we performed in, we went downstairs after warm-ups to sing in the large lobby, where sound could carry throughout the building [see photos]. Many children came out to listen and followed upstairs with us and their parents to hear the concert.
Once we were back together upstairs, we launched into our first set for our choir alone, singing our Kobi Oshrat “Hallelujah” in Hebrew, our Schütz and Brahms motets with texts directly related to the kind of struggles refugees face, and our “mash-up” of a German and Syrian folksong. Our students introduced the choir and each of our songs briefly in German, which was then translated for the audience into Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish by members of the Begegnungschor [see video]. We couldn’t help smiling when we got to the Syrian folksong in our “Vogelgesang” arrangement. As soon as our violinist Isabel Gross started playing the melody for “Ya teera tiri,” several people in the audience began singing along. A row of children in the front row began grinning from ear to ear that we were singing a song they knew and loved.
The videos and student reflections tell a much fuller story of the rest of the concert and the continued time with the Begegnungschor singers as we went from the refugee center to a restaurant nearby, where we treated our hosts to dinner together as a small token of thanks for their warm and generous welcome to us. A connection that began with a short radio broadcast in the US had ended with a live, in person gathering, exchange, and celebration that will resonate with us for years to come.
Back in Philadelphia
The students had an opportunity to connect with Syrian refugees in Philadelphia at a special event organized by "ARTolerance" that took place on Friday, February 17, 2017 at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Organized by Israeli-born cellist Udi Bar-David, a longtime member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and organizer of cross-cultural musical events, the meeting was attended by 200 people, about a third of whom were recent Syrian refugees supported by the Nationalities Service Center and the Arab-American Development Corporation. Leaders from both of those organizations spoke, several refugees shared their stories both in English and in Arabic with translation.
Music was also an important part of the event as a way of making the refugees feel welcome through connection with their culture in a new and distant land. Uzi Bar-David was joined by the Palestinian violinist Hanna Khoury, Syrian cellist Kinan Abou-afach, and Venezuelan-Syrian percussionist Hafez Kotain of the Al Bustan Seeds of Culture Arabic takht ensemble.
The Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr were offered three Syrian songs familiar enough to the refugees in attendance that they all sang along with broad smiles on their faces. Haverford Prof. of Music Thomas Lloyd gave a brief overview of their recent experience singing with refugee choirs in Berlin. Hanna Khoury, who worked with the students to teach them the Arabic language and musical style before the Berlin trip and played with them on this occasion translated Prof. Lloyd's remarks into Arabic for the benefit of the refugees in attendance.
After the event ended with the Chamber Singers singing "Bintish shalabya" (a popular Syrian song), plans were initiated with the two refugee support organizations to plan a visit to Northeast Philadelphia in April to share their music and experience with a broader group of refugee families currently centered there. See the video page for a video from this event.