Malaysia’s award-winning chamber choir promotes unity and harmony through song
The key to living in harmony is learning to sing your neighbor’s song, according to Benedict Lo, teacher and choirmaster at St Joseph’s Private School (SJPS) Kuching, Sarawak.
“Anyone can sing a song, but do you know your neighbor’s song? he asks philosophically. “Did you learn to sing their song?” If we all learn to sing each other’s songs, then we are bound to make a better Malaysia…a better world.
Lo, a passionate believer in the transformative potential of music, has led the SJPS Chamber Choir for almost six years now. During this period, the choir grew stronger and stronger, winning many accolades.
Last month, he won the Gold Award in the Virtual Choir category at the 11th Bali International Choir Festival (BICF) with the winning choral performance of Malaysian folk songs. Rasa Sayang and Lenggang Kangkung.
Prior to this victory, the choir also won the Gold B Award in Pre-Recording (Teenage Category) and came first runner-up in the Teenage Youth Choir category at the National Choir Competition, organized by the Malaysian Choral Eisteddfod.
For BICF’s moving virtual performance, the students were dressed in a variety of traditional outfits including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kenyan, Iban, Melanau, Bisaya and performed the songs with some traditional Orang Iban and Ulu movements, which will be all inspire a warm and patriotic feeling in all who watch.
“He was one of the students who came up with the idea of including all the different traditional costumes,” Lo shares in a Zoom interview from Kuching.
“Often, I try to involve the students. I screen their brains for ideas, so they can take ownership of the projects we’re working on. »
Lo says the costume idea sounded great until they tried to get it!
“Then it turned out to be a real nightmare because it was so difficult to loan out the items, because a lot of these costumes are heirlooms and people tend to be very careful with them. Luckily, in the end, we managed to get over 10 different costumes and everything looked really good!
The songs were filmed on the grounds of the Sarawak Museum and Museum Garden in Kuching, which Lo says is significant in the history of local performing arts.
The famous Sarawak Constabulary Band played at the museum’s garden bandstand on weekends in the 1960s, and it was a tradition for Kuchingites to visit the garden and listen to these musical performances.
“A great promoter of culture”
Lo enjoys incorporating this kind of history into her choir coaching sessions.
“I’m a great promoter of culture,” he says. “I believe that to truly understand where we come from, we need to explore our roots and our heritage. When I teach a particular song to the choir, I want them to know its story. When we reconnect with our roots and the stories of the past, we begin to fall in love with the culture, and that turns into love for our nation.
Music, he says, is a great way to introduce this learning and love of culture.
“Malaysia is made up of so many people, cultures, races, religions, all in one big melting pot. It’s so colorful and bright,” he says. “There are many beautiful things in our own backyard. Instead of always looking outside (like K-pop, he jokes), it’s time to look inside where there is so much to appreciate.
The SJPS Chamber Choir strives to enhance the choir experience among young people in hopes of creating a sense of belonging and community spirit.
The close bonds felt between members come from the opportunities they have to enjoy doing something positive, learning discipline and leadership, but most importantly, having a voice to contribute to the community during special performances and fundraising concerts.
The choir is made up of more than 30 schoolchildren, aged 13 to 17, including Lo’s own 13-year-old son.
“Children learn to work together and take care of each other. They learn the value of being in a community versus individualism. Singing together requires understanding balance and blending.
“Sometimes you have to be strong, sometimes soft, sometimes you get a solo spot and other times you have to support someone else. You realize that you are not alone. You are part of of a group traveling in one direction. We’re all heading towards the same goal,” Lo offers.
Lo, 47, grew up in Kuching and went on to study architecture at the University of Western Australia in Perth. After working as an architect for 15 years, he took the time to go to the Philippines to do his master’s degree in sociology.
“When I came back, I changed my career, mainly because of my faith, and I ended up becoming a Bible knowledge teacher at SJPS!” he shares. “I have always been very involved in music from an early age, leading church choirs and working with youth ministries.
“So when I arrived at the school, the director offered me the position of choir coach and it was a great opportunity for me to work with young people doing something that I was passionate about.” Even when he was in Perth, Lo participated in the Undergraduate Choral Society there and attended masterclasses and conducting courses to improve his skills.
He remembers returning home after graduating and taking a trip that really blew his mind to Ulu Belaga, a neighborhood in Kapit, just outside Miri.
“Hearing the people of the longhouse singing there was such a moving experience…These sounds and images will live on in my memory for the rest of my life. That’s what I’m trying to reproduce today with the choir, in a different, more modern and choral way.
An avid fan of Datuk Sheila Majid, musicals and classical music during his youth, Lo fell in love at some point with the works of Dr. Chong Pek Lin.
Chong is a music educator and researcher with an interest in Sarawak folk songs, particularly the Kenyah community, which is renowned for its creativity and has traditional instruments that have become popular over the past decade including the sape, lutong and keringut.
“I started following his work and I still find it really fascinating,” he reveals.
“The Kenyah community does a lot of harmonizing in their singing. There’s a beauty to it that you can only understand when you sing it or hear it yourself. And the kids kind of started enjoying those songs.
In 2020, SJPS Chamber Choir won the Gold Medal at the 2nd World Virtual Choir Festival for its performance of Lilenga Kenyah folk tune with a contemporary choral arrangement by Lo based on Chong’s original transcription and song translations.
That year, the choir competed against choirs from 13 countries, including Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, China, India, Ghana, Italy, Britain and the United States.
It was also during the pandemic, and students had to adapt to online meetings and rehearsals. It was no simple task, but the strength of the choir’s commitment and resolve ultimately earned the children first place.
Lo cheerfully recounts that this devotion was present from the start.
“In fact, it was the students who first asked me if the choir could enter a competition. At that point, I flipped the situation and asked them if they were ready to commit,” Lo explains.
“If you’re serious, you have to work hard. There will be sacrifices, there will be vigorous training…are you ready for it? And they all said yes!
For its first release, in 2018, the choir traveled to Singapore for the 11th Orientale Concentus International Choral Festival and won the silver medal.
“It was truly an eye-opener for the students and ever since then they have always been eager to do something; they do a lot of charity performances and participate in different competitions to get more visibility and to learn.
Since then, the choir has won various other awards, including the gold medal at the Malaysian Choral Eisteddfod (2021) and the champion in the youth category at the Busan Choral Festival & Competition, South Korea.
In Busan, they sang a rendition of Ikan Kekek, a Malay children’s song from the peninsula that encourages being kind and working hard to achieve success. One of Lo’s goals is for his students to be familiar with their Malaysian heritage and the songs of Malaysia so that when they go abroad they can take those songs with them.
“I try to include many folk songs, especially Sarawak folk songs. But of course it doesn’t appeal to younger people, so sometimes we have to sing ‘their’ songs too,” Lo laughs.
Instead of resting on its laurels, the SJPS choir is already working on its next project.
“I am transcribing another Kenyah song. There is an upcoming program at the end of the year, the Sarawak International Festival of Music and Arts, and we plan to be there!