Chorus festival connects cultures
The Pacific Rim Children's Chorus Festival brings hundreds of children, mostly from the Mainland and Canada, each year to Hawai'i to learn about the culture and sing the songs of Japan, China, Sāmoa, Tahiti, the Philippines, New Zealand, Korea and other places.
Founder Wanda Gereben said the nine-day intensive interactive experience allows the children access to songs and cultures they might never experience in a chorus setting that's often dominated by music of Europe and North America.
"It's a time of exploration," Gereben said.
One of her favorite moments of cultural connection through music came a few years ago when one choir riding on a sightseeing bus after the concert started singing a Sāmoan piece called "Minoi, Minoi."
The bus driver pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the bus, stood up and stared at the choir. In an emotional voice, he told them: "No one ever sings my music."
He couldn't get over "these kids from Oshkosh and East Cupcake singing and perfectly pronouncing Sāmoan," Gereben said.
Artistic Director Henry Leck travels from Indiana, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Indianapolis Children's Choir, the largest children's choir organization in North America.
Nola Nahulu, executive and artistic director of Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, presents workshops in Hawaiian choral literature and language. She also has taught choral music at Kamehameha Schools and University Lab School, and is the director of the chorus for the Hawaii Opera Theatre.
Gereben has been in the field of music education and choral music in Hawai'i for 47 years. She was the founder and artistic director of the Hawai'i Children's Chorus and was chairwoman of the music department at St. Andrew's Priory School for 25 years.
Gereben said the community choirs come from all over. Most organizations plan two years before the festival, partly to raise the $1,725-per-person cost for lodging, meals, music workshops, dance class, crafts, sightseeing and special access to Polynesian Cultural Center, among other activities.
The choirs send an audition tape. When they arrive, they sing the music of the Pacific Rim but also hear from cultural practitioners and learn crafts and other traditions, Gereben said.
"What I love about the festival is that it opens the minds," she said. "It gives them memories that will last a lifetime."
Gereben admits that she made a commitment to do the festival for one year, poured everything she could into it with the help of Leck and Nahulu, then kept doing it annually. This year marks a decade of existence.
"We sing 14 pieces," Gereben said, and only four are in English. She emphasizes that the music is sophisticated and complex, including three- and four-part harmonies.
"It makes them become so aware of what is here beyond just beaches," Gereben said.
One of her other favorite anecdotes came when a group of young singers stopped in a Waikīkī hotel restroom, where they encountered an elderly Japanese woman in a kimono. They tried to explain to the woman why they were there but the language barrier slowed them down.
They then started to sing the Japanese song they had learned, "Soran Bushi," a fishing harvest song. The woman stood up and began the traditional dance that goes with the song in the restroom lobby.
"This is what it's all about," one girl told the chaperone after they'd hugged the woman and prepared to leave.
Gereben said that cultural hookup makes the work of coordinating the festival worthwhile.
"You can work your whole life and not have affirmation like that," she said.
PACIFIC RIM CHILDREN'S CHORUS FESTIVAL
Number of employees: Executive director Wanda Gereben, who hires consultants each year and collaborates with Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus to staff the festival.
How long in business: 10 years.
Describe your business: The festival is designed for children's choirs, in grades six through 12, to give them an opportunity to experience the cultures of Pacific Rim countries through their choral music repertoire in an interactive, noncompe-titive, creative environment. Participants explore music, dance, instruments, language and story-telling with native speakers and instructors.
Work philosophy: Founder Gereben says, "We honor the cultures with as much authenticity as we can. It's not schlocky music or chalang-a-lang or we wouldn't have been around all this time."
Fun fact: Since 2001, the festival has hosted 2,776 singers with 4,565 participants (including directors and chaperones)—98 choirs from the United States and Canada.
See the choirs perform: at 4 p.m. July 18 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu. Tickets on sale at the box office.
More info: www.pacrimfestival.org or 595-0233.