Songs of the season

Feature A wealth of amateur international choirs are bringing Christmas cheer to the UAE

December 16, 2008 / Dubai / Employees from the Kempinski Hotel go around The Mall of Emirates singing Christmas songs  December 16, 2008.  (Sammy Dallal / The National)

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Seasonal cheer is in the air. It is floating, lilting and crescendoing through the entrance of Bhs department store on Hamdan Street. I push my way out from behind the support tights in the ladies lingerie section and sidle up to the holiday-themed display, chock full of candy canes and Santa-shaped lollipops. At last, I find the source of this festive spirit: the Circle of Hands adult choir and Circle of Angels children's choirs from St Joseph's Parish are singing in the lobby.

The 50-strong Circle of Hands choir is here to sing for the store's shoppers, and Bhs has them arranged in a semicircle, with the children in front. Perhaps this is to remind shoppers that it is time to buy toys for the tots. Wearing simple white shirts and red Santa hats, they stand by a glittering, taffeta-flounced array of women's party dresses. The singers, who are all Filipino, might be small in stature, but their voices are powerful. Even the store's janitorial staff stop sweeping for a while to listen to Christmas favourites.

By the time they hit their final notes they are out of breath and red-faced, but Circle of Hands and their mini-counterparts sound so good that you could easily forget that they are an amateur outfit. In each section of the choir - which is separated into soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass - the individual singers are indistinguishable from each other, as if they were all sharing one voice. Circle of Hands is, like all the best choirs performing this holiday season, perfectly balanced, without any one singer making a go for the descant to draw extra attention to him or herself.

The choir has been around in Abu Dhabi for 20 years, and is regularly asked to sing at functions, private homes, holiday parties and in hotel lobbies. This year is no different, says Dyna Javier, one of Circle of Hands' singers and a long-term organiser. "Just recently we did carolling in the residence of one of the directors of the property developer ALDAR," says Javier, who has been with the choir since the first week she and her husband moved here in 1990. "They were really having fun, saying 'Bravo, bravo!'," she says, her (soprano) voice rising higher and higher with excitement.

Tonight at Bhs is no different. It is surprising to see who stops their shopping to take in some of the merriment. There are single shoppers who stand still nearby, large Indian families, a Palestinian mother and her toddler son, plus a sprinkling of other nationalities. In all likelihood, very few of these people are actually celebrating Christmas at home, but that makes this fluorescent, overhead-lit tableau all the more resonant.

Anyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, can appreciate the harmony of beautiful voices. That's what Javier says the choir is aiming to do. "It's a really good feeling that people like us, ordinary people who sing, just share their talents and bring the spirit of Christmas to each and every family even if we don't know them." For many of us, Christmas music conjures up memories of home - and more intensely so when it is sung in our native tongue.

"At Simbang Gabi, a traditional mass that Filipinos attend from Dec 16 until Christmas, we have Tagalog carols and then some sweet songs like Pasko Na Sinta Ko (which translates as Christmas With My Wonderful One Tonight)," says Javier. "People really like it, especially because we are all expatriates and we miss our families at home. When they hear these songs in our language, they really remember them."

Circle of Hands, however, is far from the only choir on the block. In Dubai, the Kempinski Hotel Staff Choir also brings seasonal flavour, dressed up in Christmas chic, with red velvet mandarin-collared coats embroidered with the word "Kempinski" on the back in gold. Despite their professional-looking garb, this too is an amateur choir. Still, that has not stopped its members putting on a show for mall, hotel and Ski Dubai guests. Every evening at 6pm, the 18 or so members, many of whom work in the various hotel restaurants, will march together from the large Christmas tree set up in the entrance of Ski Dubai's indoor slopes to the absolutely enormous Christmas tree in the middle of the mall's galleria, singing all the way. As they go along, some shoppers freeze in their tracks, rubbernecking as if they had seen the ghost of Christmas past, while other mall-goers dodge quickly to avoid a holiday-induced pile-up.

"We have a Christmas choir each year and this year we wanted to do exactly the same but much better," says Amandine Guinchard, who is both the Kempinski's human resources assistant and the choir's organiser. Guinchard, with her petite frame and pixie haircut, looks charmingly elfin enough to be one of Santa's helpers. No wonder she seems so well suited to leading a Christmas singing session. "They are all volunteers, working beyond their duties, and they all show a real commitment, just because they want to share their Christmas spirit with everybody," she says.

This is the second year that the Kempinski decided to form a staff-only troupe. This year's ensemble boasts members from Kenya, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and all of them had to audition to get in to the choir. "In the beginning it was a bit of a challenge, a bit hard," says Ahmed Nabil, an Egyptian-born waiter who works at the hotel's Sezzam restaurant. "We had selections and had to try out for it." In order to raise the bar, the Kempinski hired an outside choirmaster, Jun de Leon, to help train those employees who made the cut. This involved two practices a week for six months in order to whip their voices into shape.

De Leon, a 35-year-old music teacher from the Philippines, has worked with the Kempinski Staff Choir for two years now. He also helps arrange music for weddings and corporate events at the Kempinski. Music is his passion, so taking on extra work in addition to his full-time job teaching (music, naturally) at a nursery school and managing his church's choir isn't a burden. He says that the easiest song to sing for any type of voice is We Wish You a Merry Christmas. This is one of the tunes that the Kempinski choir is singing. In fact, De Leon reveals that all of the songs the Kempinski's singers are performing this year are less challenging "happy songs".

I imagine that this means they have decided against doing that tragic Christmas classic, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Waiting for the choir to assemble, I see what could be a Christmas mirage. No, it's not the Sugarplum fairy. It's a man dressed as a decorated Christmas tree, his costume resembling a child's drawing - all triangle-shaped branches rendered in green felt with tinsel and felt ornaments sewn on. The tree, to my surprise, is performing what looks like interpretative dance.

I walk up to the tree-man and ask him if he is with the Kempinski choir. No words come from his little green-painted face, which is visible through a hole cut in the front of the costume. Instead he just does some sort of wavelike motion and smirks at me. Considering that he is the one who is covered in glitter and wearing green tights, I find his snub rather impertinent. Will he be singing with the choir this evening? Again, no answer, just a negative head shake in slow motion as he hula dances away from me. Even the children, waiting for the singing to start with their parents, look weirded out and I think I see a toddler run in the opposite direction.

Intrigued by the idea that this rent-a-tree will never break character, I ask Guinchard the name of the performer. She says that she has no idea, though she suspects that he works for Ski Dubai. Now it is time for the Kempinski Staff Choir, like a South-East Asian version of the Von Trapp family, to go forth and make merry, dashing through the crowd, singing all the way. The hotel has also hired a Santa, who leads the troupe towards the blinking blue Christmas tree in the mall galleria. The tree guy follows behind, skipping as best he can in his felt straitjacket.

As the choir starts to sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, some shoppers join this makeshift Christmas conga line and follow it all the way to the galleria, their children calling out to the front of the line: "We love you, Santa!" Once in front of the galleria's rotunda, the choir begins its medley with Little Drummer Boy while nearly 100 people, all from different places, backgrounds and religions, gather around to hear them. The lyrics, "Come they told me, pa-ru-pa-pum-pum," resound against the marble hall as Santa plays and poses for pictures with the children. Everyone seems to be smiling - it seems as though they, too, have all been touched with Christmas cheer.