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Filipino Choir in Dubai Proves How Music Can Make the Heart Sing

The National,  18 December 2011

James Gabrillo meets some of the members of the Dubai Vocal Ensemble, a Filipino choir who have found a purpose in singing together.

“You’re seriously telling me you don’t sing?” asks Bubut Lopez, a member of the Dubai Vocal Ensemble (DVE).

“You’re lying,” she tells me, “because all Filipinos sing.”

Lopez and I are on the road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to attend the choir’s technical rehearsal for their first big concert happening in two days. It is almost six in the evening and Lopez is driving. “B-u-b-u-t, as in beauty,” she says, pointing to my notebook. “You have to get the spelling right.”

Lopez, 44, works for the sales department of an electrical cable company in the nation’s capital. Three times a week, she takes the long drive to Dubai to rehearse with the DVE, a 30-member all-Filipino choir based in St Mary’s Catholic church.

“It’s not easy to drive for two hours, after an exhausting day at work, sing for two hours and then drive back home right after,” she says. “I usually stop on the side of the road to take naps. You’ll see.”

The choir rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday nights, plus Friday mornings, immediately after singing in the church’s 6am mass. They do a vocal warm-up at 5.30am, so members are usually up by four.

Lopez wakes up two hours before that because of the travel time.”There’s another guy from the choir who’s based in Abu Dhabi,” she says. “Whenever he rides with me, he brings a toothpick. When I start dozing off, he pokes me.”

Lopez was one of the seven founding members of the DVE. On March 11, 2004, after almost half a year of pestering St Mary’s for an opportunity to sing, the upstart choir was given a slot: an early morning Friday mass conducted in Tagalog.

“When we showed up, a group of old Filipina women told us: ‘That’s your choir? The seven of you?’ They were pitying us,” Lopez recalls. “When we started to sing, they all turned deaf. Our voices were so loud, we broke a microphone. Since then, we were the choir singing for that mass.”

Lopez, a soprano, first joined a choir in fourth grade, at age nine. When she moved to Dubai in 2002, a singing group was the first thing she looked for.

Since performing at the 8th Fridge Concert Series on October 31 – their first public show outside the church – the DVE has attracted a following of both fellow Filipinos and expatriates. “We had goosebumps from their stunning renditions,” recall the concert’s organisers, who dubbed the DVE “the best choir in Dubai”.

In tonight’s technical rehearsal, the DVE (also known as the Christian Voices Chorale, when singing at St Mary’s) is preparing for a concert that the church organised for them last month.

Inside the church’s main hall, members of the production team are arranging some 500 chairs. Some are setting up the stage while others are fixing audio equipment. As they work, most tap their feet to the music resonating throughout the space: the choir singing Jai Ho, AR Rahman’s Hindi song.

During the two-hour technical performance, the DVE rehearsed numbers from their 20-song concert repertoire, which includes the Latin Eucharistic hymn Ave Verum Corpus, the 1970s Spanish song Eres Tù and Adele’s recent hit Rolling in the Deep. The choir also take on Lady Gaga, Jason Mraz and The Beatles.

“We want people to see that we’re more than a church choir. We’re a concert choir,” says Joy Santos, the DVE’s musical director. “We sing pop, religious and, of course, Filipino folk songs, which we’re eager to introduce to audiences – songs taught to us by our great grandparents back home.”

Santos, 33, works as a music teacher in Dubai. A graduate of a prestigious music conservatory, she joined the DVE back in 2008 as first soprano. Last year, when the choir’s director went back to the Philippines, she took on the conducting role.

“Our sound was already formed, so it wasn’t that difficult,” she says. “What I teach now is discipline. Most of them don’t have any formal background in music – we have engineers, architects, secretaries – so I teach them how to read notes.”

Santos says that whenever someone comes in to audition, the one trait she looks for is dedication. “This is no joke. Most members commute just to get to rehearsal. We pay for our expenses. We don’t get anything – even our concert is free.”

What members do get, Santos says, is a support system. “Singing is a coping mechanism,” she says, smiling. “Away from our families back home, this is what we have. Music binds us. Service, as well.”

Orlee Baldedara, a 29-year-old insurance broker, moved to Dubai in 2008 and joined the choir shortly after.

“It’s fulfilling. It takes you out of the work-home-work cycle,” he says. “You find a purpose. Instead of going out on Thursday nights – you can’t because you have to wake up at dawn the next day.”

When Mabel Cruz arrived in Dubai in 2006, she attended mass at St Mary’s so she could ask around for a choir to join.

“Choir music is not as big here in the UAE, so it’s so exciting to be introducing it to audiences,” says the 32-year-old, who trains airline crew. “To get to do it with them [the DVE] at this level is -unbelievable.”

Rolly Rabe, who works in construction in Abu Dhabi, attended the New Year’s Eve mass at St Mary’s back in 2006. Before the ceremony ended, a notice flashed on the projector screen. “It was a call for choir auditions,” he remembers. “After the mass, I approached them and that was it.”

This month, the DVE is booked to perform for private events including several company Christmas parties, weddings and charity concerts, aside from singing at St Mary’s Friday masses. There is a Dubai One TV segment lined up on Thursday, due to screen on Christmas Day. In June they will embark on their first international tour, with invitations from competitions in Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium and Turkey. The church has promised funding.

The vision of taking the choir to a wider audience is thanks partly to Lloyd Misquitta, a 30-year-old Indian national who serves as the vice-president of St Mary’s parish council.

“We wanted everyone to see first-hand what talent we have here,” he says. “I mean, come on, in a little church in the Middle East, who would ever think? For a 40-year-old church in Dubai to have a choir like this – wow.”

Misquitta, a pricing systems manager for Emirates Airline, says when he stepped into St Mary’s, the first thing he noticed was the absence of young people. “It was all old people doing old things,” he says. “Now we’re putting the youth in the -forefront.”

He says that members of the concert’s production team are all volunteers under the age of 22, mostly local college students doing it for free.

Misquitta remembers sitting in one of the church’s pews and hearing the DVE for the first time. “I was blown away. There were seven of them. I was shocked. I didn’t know humans were capable of singing like that,” he says. “I remember closing my eyes and I was able to see how clear their music was.”

Later, past midnight, on the drive back to Abu Dhabi, Lopez is clearly tired.

But the night is not over. Before leaving Dubai we pass by her former roommate, who’s heading back to the Philippines the next day, for good.

“She will finally feel the real Christmas spirit,” Lopez says. Then, a stop at the apartment complex where her three siblings live, so she can drop off a container of bilo-bilo, a Filipino delicacy that took her hours to make the previous night. Her younger brother was supposed to ride with us too, but the car was already full. Lopez hands him money for a cab ride.

Finally, before taking the long road, we stop at a petrol station for drinks. Lopez downs a Red Bull and a cup of coffee. Midway on our trip, she parks the car on the side of the road and takes a five-minute nap. When she wakes up, she blasts the car’s stereo – it’s a Filipino ballad from the 1980s – and starts to sing along.

“Do you know that tonight I was supposed to be moving apartments? But I couldn’t do it because I wanted to sing instead,” she says. “We are addicted to singing. There are so many reasons to stop doing this, but your feet will bring you to rehearsals no matter what.”

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