FEATURE: Joanna Wallfisch's work with Songbound in Mumbai #IWD2016 / @womensday / #InternationalWomensDay

Joanna Wallfisch with students in India

This February London-born. Brooklyn-based vocalist JOANNA WALLFISCH had the opportunity to travel to Mumbai to work with Songbound, a UK charity founded by Joe Walters, putting together choirs of hundreds of underprivileged children in India. She spent seven days singing with street kids and re-discovering the power of music. Joanna writes about a very special experience:

For millions of children in India, the reality of life is dark unpredictability, poverty and violence. Even being there in person it is difficult to fully appreciate, let alone to begin to understand what that really means. In just seven days, I had the unique opportunity to not only witness some of the darkness, but also to experience these children’s shining light. Over the course of the week I worked with almost 200 kids, traveling across the city from schools in Wadala, Nagar and Sion, to a care centre for the children of sex workers in Grant Road; from a crèche for 4-5year olds in a slum in Bhakti Park, to a center for children suffering with cancer in Parel.

My role was multi-faceted. Working both with the incredibly dedicated Mumbai-based choir leaders, providing them with new skills for directing, singing and teaching, and then with the children as a choir leader myself. Each teaching environment was unique. Ranging from a large school hall, to a tiny corrugated tin shack in a slum, to classrooms with barely a foot in which to stand before the desks began, and ceilings so low you could touch by just reaching up, narrowly avoiding the whirring fans. Yet, every child I had the privilege to work with seemed somehow impervious to these less than ideal conditions, their presence of mind in the music absolute, their concentration during each two hour workshop focused. There seemed to be nowhere they’d rather be, and their gratitude was contagious. They called me Di Di, or “big sister”. Many of the kids had a good level of English, and even for those who spoke only Hindi communication wasn't an issue, as the language of music broke down the boundaries like water against sand. The week culminated in a concert, bringing together the groups across the city, forming a choir of 170. The semester’s theme was Harvest, and they sang songs in both English and Hindi. There was a electricity to the event, brought by the children, teachers and parents.

'Di Di' Joanna and students in a music workshop

Almost overcome by the energy of the occasion it was easy to forget the backgrounds of these kids. Half way through the concert, looking out across the choir as I conducted, I noticed the Grant Road group wearing festive face masks. With stark realization I remembered and understood the reason for their disguise — these children’s identity had to be protected for they are, due to their birth circumstance, effectively outcasts from society. Singing with joy, standing tall and being part of this celebratory event they were, in that moment, as any other child on earth. Every child in this room has suffered and continues to suffer immense hardships at home and in their souls, yet there we were together sharing in the power of music. With our singing we raised the roof, and with a showering of cheers and applause parents, teachers and children alike were brought together in this unique celebration.

Joanna and choir triumphant

Summarizing this experience is no easy task — from the people I met, to the sights, smells and sounds of Mumbai, it was a life-altering week, and the thread tying it all together is music. Music is not a luxury, but a necessity. It is a healer and a destination where one can find peace, hope and joy. Yes, these children need food, better sanitation, shelter and security. Unfortunately these cannot be conjured up in the space of an hour or two. But what we can bring these children almost instantly is a safe haven from their daily lives in the form of music, with an opportunity to sing and to be a part of something positive.

One Songbound child described these workshops as, “the time I can forget all the sadness in my life,” whilst another told me, “Songbound and singing means a lot to me because first of all, we should never let any opportunities to go from our hand. It comes only once in life and I think singing is the only way in which you can express your self through words without having fear or shyness.”

LINKS: For the full story, Joanna Wallfisch's blog
Songbound website: www.songbound.com
Further reading on the slum life in Mumbai: www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com

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