Sharing music, culture

Photo's courtesey of Duncan Campbell
Costa Rican students gather with Caslteton University Chorale. 

The warm and gentle tropical air blows through the atrium of the Centro Cultural Herediana Omar Dengo’s. The darkness of night seeps through the fenced roof and into the square, while dim stage lights cast shadows over floral pieces and a white backdrop.

The sound of guitars, maracas and angelic soprano and bass voices from the Kemb’ix musical group fills the space, as dancers twirl around the stage in traditional vivid golas and sashes.

In the audience, 20 American university men and women donning black tuxedos and gowns and their conductor stare in amazement at the energetic performance. In about 10 minutes, the musical groups will change places, and those 20 men and women will sing an eclectic mix of Hispanic, African, and American music, as they have done so for primary school children, university students and local singers.

After their last note is sung and after the crowd cheers, they will combine with Kemb’ix for an exuberant rendition of Eduardo Balo Gomez’ “Tico de Corazon.” This collaboration will simply be another leg of the choir’s journey through a tropical getaway.

In the last two weeks of May, members of the Castleton University Chorale traveled to Costa Rica for a 10-day musical tour and cultural immersion. Students earned college credit while exchanging traditions and values with the people of Central America.

Junior Brianne Lebel-Stephen said that her biggest takeaway from the trip was a change in her perspective of others. She said that as someone from a small area in the United States, it is good to take in as much as a different country has to offer.

“It was really nice to step out and see, and hear and experience other things that we don’t normally experience at home,” Lebel-Stephen said. “That’s my main goal out of traveling anywhere.”

Consisting of students and faculty of various musical backgrounds, the Castleton delegation traveled with the performance trip tour operator “Forest Melodies” throughout the vicinities of San Jose, Jaco, Sarchi, San Ramon and Heredia. They performed, collaborated and dined on local cuisine with local choir groups including Estudio Choralia, the University of Costa Rica choir, and Kemb’ix. Additionally, they sang songs from their 13-piece setlist to schoolchildren from the Escuela Maria Luisa de Castro, a public school in Jaco, and the Colegio Nuestra Senora de Sion.

Sherrill Blodget, director of Choral Activities at Castleton, said that this trip in particular outweighed other international tours that the choir has participated in due to the increase in chances to socialize and collaborate with choral groups from the host country. She said that this, along with performing at different venues, allowed the choir to experience the country fully.

“This is how a choir tour should be organized,” she said. “With a mix of collaboration, performance, and immersion opportunities, along with sight-seeing and cultural opportunities.”

Will Dias, a student from UCR who is studying to be a teacher, said that his favorite part about singing with other choir groups is the opportunity to hear familiar songs and tunes from the literal voices of people from different backgrounds. He added that this experience serves as a lesson for him on the different styles and inflections of a common piece.

“I really like the fact that I can listen to you (Castleton) and can see the way that you interpret the music, learn something new, and enjoy how other people sing,” Dias said.

Blodget said that workshopping, sharing, and performing music with local groups helped bridge cultures because the music allowed the choirs to connect despite a language barrier. She explained that a majority of music from all around the world contains similar messages and this, in turn, allows different peoples to understand each other’s emotions and ideas.

“The more in-depth you study or experience the music, the more you understand about the different cultures, as well as realizing that many, many of the themes of text set in choral music are similar, regardless of where they are from,” she said.

Music and singing play a significant role in Costa Rican and Central American culture, according to the people. Kemb’ix Director Fredy Batzibal Tujal said that music allows him to share his Guatemalan background and said the name of his musical group is derived from his native clothing.

“It (Kemb’ix) comes from my native language, Kaqchikel,” Batzibal Tujal said. “It means telar de voces (loom of voices).”

The loom refers to the weave used to make the clothing.

UCR Choir member Ava Umana said that the importance of music and singing goes beyond the choir and culture. She explained that it has physical benefits by allowing people to express their emotions and escape the difficulties of everyday life.

“Singing is a good way of dealing with stress in one’s life and makes you relax,” Umana said.

The members of Estudio Choralia explained that they were exposed to music at young ages by family members who sang and played instruments. One tenor, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that his love of music and singing goes back to his childhood. He said that his father plays the guitar and taught him simple chords of the instrument. This, along with his father taking him to large musical venues formed a lifelong passion.

“It was my dream to sing in those places,” he said.

The Castleton choir performed pieces mostly written or arranged by American composers as a way to showcase the music of North America, including “Earth Song,” “Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie,” “Good Night Dear Heart,” and “Wade in the Water.” A majority of these songs contain themes of loss, liberation, hardship and peace. Three African pieces and one Latin hymn were included due to their connection to American culture.

“The African pieces, to me, fit in because the North American tradition of Spirituals and Gospel has distinct African roots,” Blodget said.

Offstage, the group rested their voices and bodies with trips to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast, ziplining and aerial tram rides in the rainforest, a coffee tour at the Doka Coffee Plantation, attending the 25 anos de Gloria Instiuto Costarricense Promusica Coral concert at the Teatro Nacional in San Jose, and walks around La Paz waterfalls in the cloud forests above Alajuela. Through it all, they soaked in the natural beauty of the Costa Rican landscape, fauna and people.

The Castleton group returned to the United States on the night of May 29 and it dissolved in a pick-up area at Logan International Airport. According to the music department, they are looking at future trips to Europe, Mexico City, and possibly the Festival of Peace in Costa Rica. Choir members, however, said that with a newfound appreciation for the small Central American country, they hope to return soon.

“If there’s another opportunity to do this before I graduate,” Lebel-Stephen said, “I’m so doing it.”

Castleton's Chorale performs in Costa Rica. 

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