Rachel Weber, Erin Kern, and Hannah Tilstra posing above the city of Cusco. (Photos by Erin Kern)

Serving Through Song

A lot of time and research has recently gone into proving whether music really is a universal language. While St. Thomas’ Festival Choir might not have scientific data to answer that question, many members of the choir returned from a trip to Peru with stories that add testament to how music can connect people across the world.

From May 25-June 2, members of the Festival Choir, made up of the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir, along with their conductor, Dr. Angela Broeker, traversed Lima and Cusco.

While there, they performed for Peruvian communities, including in several churches and alongside local choirs, all while immersing themselves in the culture.

“Peru was unlike anywhere we had toured before,” Broeker said of her reasons for selecting the country. “We also knew we wanted to do some service work, and Peru offered many service opportunities.”

A warm welcome

Zach Beckman during a tour of Sacsayhuaman.

Zach Beckman during a tour of Sacsayhuaman.

Choir tours are a longstanding tradition; however, most choirs tour western European countries. Broeker said she wanted a destination that pushed everyone involved “outside of their comfort zones,” as well as a location where St. Thomas students could be of service.

Peru offered that in many ways. Broeker emphasized that, because not many American university choirs have toured through the mountainous country, the experience was often new for those seeing the concerts and provided opportunities for building strong relationships.

For each of the concerts, Festival Choir members performed with Peruvian choirs, such as the University of San Marcos Choir, Arpegio Musical (a children’s choir), the Coro do Madrigalistas de la Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru and the Coro de Camara Cusco. The friendships forged with the other choirs set the mood for much of the trip.

“We’re all there because we love to sing and because we love what it does for the community,” said junior Zach Beckman. “If you meet another performer who has that same level of dedication, it’s pretty powerful.”

While with the University of San Marcos Choir, Beckman said they both choirs discovered they knew the same song: “Hanacpachap,”a 17th century prayer sung in Quechua, a language spoken by the Incans. The choirs mixed together and sang the song, which proved a powerful moment for many St. Thomas students.

“I remember all the basses like fist-bumping and high-fiving,” Beckman said. “After that, there was nothing left in the way of friendship barriers.”

“It was something different that choirs don’t really get the opportunity to sing, and it was in a language that was really rare to sing in,” said junior Natalie Gaskins. “We got to sing with people who have been immersed in that language or have been exposed to it as part of their culture.”

Singing “Hanacpachap” also was one of two stories Broeker shared when the choir’s trip was highlighted in Classical MPR’s “Sing to Inspire” segment in September.

Gaskins and Beckman both made friends through the choirs and used their new friends to practice Spanish and learn more about Peruvian culture. Gaskins has kept in touch through Facebook.

The connections the choir felt with audience members were just as powerful. Broeker noted that although some of their venues were not performance halls, audience members sang along all the same, visibly moved by the song selections, particularly the ones they knew. Another Peruvian song the choir sang was “El Condor Pasa,” which is based on an Andean folk tune.

“It was totally unreal,” said Laura Landvik ’15. “For everyone to recognize the condor song was so cool. People would sing or hum along. … It was like you were a part of the culture of Peru even though we were only there for 10 days.”

Broeker said the warm welcome they received from everyone, including the hosts at their venues, was unlike anything she had experienced before.

“My Spanish is limited, but it was very easy to understand what that concert experience had meant to them in the way they spoke to us, their smiles, in their hugs, in their wish for pictures, in the gifts they gave us – my goodness, we’ve never been given such gifts before,” Broeker said. Among those gifts were Peruvian choral pieces presented by the directors of the other choirs.

The concert experiences ran long, as audience members came up to talk with Festival Choir singers, Landvik said, adding that one word everyone knew was “selfie.”

A day of service

A resident of Residencia de las Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados plays the harmonica for choir members.

A resident of Residencia de las Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados plays the harmonica for choir members.

For a day dedicated specifically to service, the Festival Choir journeyed to Residencia de las Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados, a nursing home-like facility in Lima run by religious sisters. The students learned about the mission of the sisters and sang in several different areas.

Junior Isabel Braga-Henebry highlighted how striking the building was. “The atmosphere was beautiful, open and airy,” she said. “It smelled like garlic and rice. … In Peru, they treat (the elderly) with so much more respect, treat them as if they were in their own family, with so much love.”

Although emotions ran high throughout their visit, a moment of levity and laughter also presented itself: A man with a harmonica played American folk tunes for them while dancing – which eventually culminated in a dance-off between him and Beckman.

One of the last spots the choir sang in was a section where the elderly had fewer visitors.

“A ton of them were crying,” Braga-Henebry said of the reaction to their singing, particularly when they sang “Hanacpachap.” “I think that’s where a lot of us started crying, because it was so beautiful and they were so grateful for having us there.”

Beckman shared his own experience. (Full of energy and excitement about the whole trip, this was the story where Beckman slowed down, becoming quieter and more contemplative.) He said that when they were leaving, a woman came up to him and started whispering something in his ear over and over. At the time, he translated her words to mean, “Thank you for coming.” He later found out she actually was saying “Thank God for you.”

“At that moment, we were all family,” Beckman said. “The choir, the tour guides, the nuns who ran the nursing home, the people in the nursing home themselves. We were all part of one universe. If I could take that feeling and apply it to the world, we would have a lot more laughter and a lot less crying.

“As far as the nursing home, all I can tell you is that music is a universal language,” Beckman said.

‘Music in its natural surroundings’

As equally important as their performances was the time choir members spent exploring Peruvian culture. They did a walking tour of Lima; visited markets; and toured Incan ruins, including Machu Picchu, which was a highlight for many.

Of course, music and dance were prime attractions.

“To see music in its natural surroundings – to see somebody moved to sing or moved to dance, and others join in – it’s a snapshot of daily life,” said Dr. Karen Howard, assistant professor of music, who specializes in global music traditions.

Howard purchased several Peruvian instruments, some of which are now a part of her courses at St. Thomas: a cajita, a box that is tapped while the top is opened or close for sound; a charango, a small stringed instrument in the lute family; and cajons, which are box drums that the player sits upon.

The students also mentioned going to a discoteca and enjoying the many street performers and live bands in almost all of the restaurants they ate in.

“Music is everywhere in Peru,” Landvik said.

Braga-Henebry was particularly struck by a young girl who sang for tourists.

“Just the fact that she just walked up to these people and started singing for them – how brave!” Braga-Henebry said. “It was like, ‘Let me share my gift with you.’”

Braga-Henebry emphasized that it was those “little things” that created connections for all of the people on the trip with the people of Peru.

“I really just hold in my heart that music is a universal language,” Braga-Henebry said. “It brings people of all different cultures, views, religions, lifestyles … together in such a way. I really saw that in Peru – through little experiences like swing dancing, choirs, live bands, people who performed for us. … Wherever you go with a choir, you really engage a lot of people’s hearts. I saw it really spelled out in Peru.”

That is precisely the point of such trips, according to Broeker, who returned with a stronger commitment to pairing service with her international tours.

“I hope (students) brought back to the United States a deep confirmation that we’re a larger human family,” Broeker said. “No matter what cultural differences or economic differences, we are united in spirit and are here to serve each other.”