Signal Hill Alumni Choir marks 40th anniversary with year of activities

Signal Hill Alumni Choir will commemorate its 40th anniversary with a series of activities. -
Signal Hill Alumni Choir will commemorate its 40th anniversary with a series of activities. -

DISCIPLINE, PASSION and resilience have been the foundation on which the Signal Hill Alumni Choir (SHAC) has built its success over the past 40 years.

“It’s only when you reach the 40 milestone you realise how much time has flown. But as an institution, I think the choir has been able to demonstrate excellence, resilience and really carried the ambassadorial torch for Tobago in several ways,” co-founder and artistic director John Arnold told Sunday Newsday.

Apart from winning the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) for culture in the 1997 National Awards and being declared a national icon, the choir has been a fixture at prestigious events both at home and abroad, thrilling audiences with their crisp vocals, eye-catching outfits and synchronised movements.

Over the years, the choir has performed for several global figures, including late South-African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

The Signal Hill Alumni Choir has played a major role in shaping the lives of its members. -

To commemorate its 40th anniversary, the choir has organised a year of activities, under the theme, A Musical Odyssey: 2064. It begins today with an interfaith service at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex. The event, scheduled to begin at 4.30 pm, features contributions from several religious leaders, a praise and worship segment and an open forum for tributes. The choir will also perform songs from its varied repertoire.

The itinerary includes a sports and family day in May and caravans, featuring school tours, throughout several districts in Trinidad and Tobago.

The SHAC is also planning to host major concerts – one in south Trinidad, two in North Trinidad and one in Tobago – from September 21 – October 6, 2024. The anniversary celebration culminates in December with a dinner and awards ceremony.

“It is not just a Tobago celebration because we have flown the flag for Trinidad and Tobago,” Arnold said.

The choir was formally established in 1984 but the seeds were sown two years before.

Arnold recalled he began teaching at Signal Hill Secondary School (formerly Signal Hill Senior Comprehensive) in 1982, fresh from the UWI.

“In 1980, there would have been a choir in Scarborough Junior Secondary (which was a three-year institution at the time). So that choir coming up from the junior sec, some of the members had transferred to Signal Hill.”

He said late musician Michael Duncan and his wife, Cheryl, both of whom were teachers, later approached him about forming the Signal Hill Secondary School choir in 1982.

“So in 1984, for the first time, we decided we will now form the alumni.”

Apart from winning the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) for culture in the 1997 National Awards and being declared a national icon, the Signal Hill Alumni Choir has been a fixture at prestigious events both at home and abroad. -

Arnold said the choir dominated the music festival in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, another choir, the Signalites Chorale, was formed.

“Signalites was always the feeder for Signal Hill Alumni Choir. Most people in the alumni now would have gone through Signalites or Signal Hill Alumni in its original form.”

Over the years, Arnold said the choir has had many memorable achievements. But its second place finish to the Ukraine in the folk category at the 2001 Wales Eisteddfod International Chorale Festival is perhaps its most gratifying.

He said the SHAC was also the only choir from the Caribbean and Latin America to perform for the United Nations Rhythms of One World Choral Festival in New York, US, in 2012 and Geneva, Switzerland, in 2014.

More recently, in June 2023, the choir also performed alongside other world-renowned ensembles in the Costa Rica International Choral Festival of Peace, which celebrates music, culture, nature and peace.

The Signal Hill Choir has performed for several global figures, including late South-African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. -

Later, in November, as a prelude to its 40th anniversary celebration, it hosted a concert, titled Christmas Again: Songs We Sing, at the Daaga Auditorium, UWI, St Augustine.

Asked what distinguishes the SHAC from other choirs, Arnold said, “Our thing is our sound and movement. Our movements are highly synchronised and always tell a story. So we have our own chorale identity.”

He added the choir also does not stick to one genre of music but explores its versatility.

“We did a big production one year called Socalypso Chronicles with over 60 calypsos and soca. So in terms of that we have been the forerunner. We also have an enviable discography and seven albums to our name.”

Revered as one of Tobago’s cultural institutions, Arnold said the choir, apart from being the most travelled ensemble on the island, has also played a major role in shaping the lives of its members.

“A member once told me that she went for a job interview and when she told the interviewer that she was a member of the Signal Hill Alumni Choir, he told her immediately that she got the job.”

The Signal Hill Alumni Choir has been a limited liability company since 2018. Photos courtesy SHAC -

Arnold believes the interviewer was aware of the choir’s reputation for discipline and excellence.

Choreographer Georgina Peterkin can attest to this.

“I grew up in choir so I know about discipline, being a team player and being in a group,” she told Sunday Newsday.

Peterkin said she’s also been able to translate those qualities to her job as a sales manager with the Digicel Group.

“The choir has helped me to evolve as a person, be dynamic.”

As choreographer, Peterkin employs what she considers to be a unique style.

“For me, it is all organic. I choreograph in front of the choir. So I get my feel for the song, my vibrations, from the choir.

“It is not something I can do at home and then bring it to them. I have to be in front of them. When we sing, it is only then will my creative juices roll.”

She said choreography, for her, is about telling the story by putting movement to music.

“This works well for us when we travel to countries where English is not their first language. Based on the movements, they enjoy the performances because they can relate to it.”

The choir rehearses weekly, mostly on Tuesdays, even when they are not preparing for a show.

But Peterkin admitted this can be challenging.

“Everybody has a life so the time you may think is important for people to show up for rehearsals, there is something else that is important happening in their lives. So that is the challenge sometimes – getting everybody together.”

She said some members also may not feel comfortable doing certain moves for particular presentations.

“I may know what I want but because it is a chorale effect, you really have to go back to the drawing board and make a change. But the major challenge is getting everybody in the same space, at the same level, at the same time.”

Peterkin said the choir has put not just Tobago by the country on the map.

“In the 1980’s, we dominated the music festivals which has allowed us to represent Tobago in the outside world.”

Like Arnold, Peterkin regarded the SHAC’s performance at the Wales Eisteddfod International Chorale Festival as one of its high points.

“We competed against countries all over the world and we lost to the Ukraine by one point. I am still convinced we lost by that one point because we did not have a national uniform because one of the requirements was performing in your country’s national uniform. But we have put Tobago on the map by being cultural ambassadors out there.”

Saying the choir has always been a worthy ambassador for TT, member Kevin Doyle said the Wales festival will always have a special place in his heart.

He said the SHAC came up against some of the best choirs in the world and made an impression.

“We actually we came second to Ukraine. But after the performance, one of the judges said, ‘It’s not that you didn’t win. It’s just that you can’t come here for the first time and win.’

“So that was a meaningful thing. It’s nice when you go to these festivals and you make an impact. That says a pot for a small island choir of this calibre. So we look at ourselves as ambassadors,” he said.

Doyle has been a member of the SHAC for the past 27 years and regards himself as a veteran. He said he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

“It is a joy and a passion for me to be sharing a gift, because I always say it was a gift that was given to us so people would experience our gift to them. Love, joy, all the emotions on could get, we bring that to people and I like to share that with people.”

He said he was exposed to music at a very young age.

“One of my uncles was a music man and he used to play music every Sunday – gospel and especially soul. So I always listened and sang the songs when I heard them.”

Doyle said when he graduated from Signal Hill Secondary, he transitioned seamlessly to the alumni.

Describing the group as one of the forerunners of Tobago culture, Doyle said despite its versatility, the choir has been able to retain their Tobago-ness.

“We have maintained our effect on the Tobago culture so we don’t lose what we have. Though we always try to improve ourselves and learn new stuff, we really push the Tobago aspect of where we came from.”

Arnold said the choir no longer performs competitively.

“We are about longevity and representation now.”

He said steps are already being taken to not just archive and preserve the choir’s work but plan for its future leaders and members by building capacity within the group.

Arnold said the SHAC has been a limited liability company since 2018.

“It is all about longevity, having recordings to keep the body of music alive and succession planning.”


"Signal Hill Alumni Choir marks 40th anniversary with year of activities"

More in this section