Signal Hill Alumni Choir turns 40

Members of the Signal Hill Alumni Choir perform at the exhibition. -
Members of the Signal Hill Alumni Choir perform at the exhibition. -

ENLARGED, laminated newspaper clippings, a few awards and a screen presentation told the story of the Signal Hill Alumni Choir’s (SHAC’s) journey during an exhibition at the Scarborough Library, Tobago, on July 3.

The event was part of a year-long celebration to commemorate the group’s 40th anniversary – a milestone that has cemented its status as one of the country’s leading cultural institutions.

The celebration, titled 2064: A Musical Odyssey, began last November with a Yuletide concert, titled Christmas Again: Songs We Still Sing, at UWI, St Augustine.

This was followed by a thanksgiving service at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex in March and a sports and family day at the Buccoo Integrated Facility on June 1.

The choir has several other activities planned for the coming months.

These include four concerts, three of which are being held in Trinidad, one at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando (September 21), and two at Central Bank Auditorium, Port of Spain (September 28 and 29). The final show will be held in Tobago on October 6 at the Shaw Park Complex.

Tickets for the Tobago concert will be out soon.

Speaking at the exhibition, John Arnold, the choir’s co-founder and musical director, reflected on the 40th anniversary’s theme, which, essentially, is about succession planning and longevity.

“We are looking into the future. We are looking at the possibilities. We are forward thinking. It is about what we would like to be and what we would like to do within the next few years,” he told the audience, which included Dr Charleston Thomas, technical adviser in the THA Division of Tourism, Culture, Antiquities and Transportation, former THA assemblyman Kwesi Des Vignes and and several of the choir’s vocalists and musicians.

Arnold, who was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (gold) for culture and the arts at the 2011 national awards, said the group has had a great run over the past four decades.

“We have toured several countries and we have managed to keep all of our members, those who are here with us, together. We have been able to impact the lives of others.”

He said the SHAC also has been able to influence the work of other choirs in the country.

A member of the choir views one of the displays at the exhibition. -

But Arnold, an accomplished musician, said the choir’s success did not come easy.

“It has been something else. Despite everything else that fails, we have been able to stay the course and we are still here.”

He admitted, though, that the exhibition, refreshed his memory about several of the choir’s past experiences.

“I have been here 40 years and I have re-learnt some things and I am reading things I can’t even remember.”

Arnold said the choir, which performs several genres of music, has developed its own choral identity and memory over the years.

Its style, he said, has resonated with audiences all over the world.

Arnold said throughout its journey, Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie has perhaps been the choir’s staunchest supporter.

He recalled at one time there was a “big impasse” within the choir’s original management.

“I remember when it broke up, I was left with the choir while the other people moved, ‘Dr Mac’ along with the late Winston Gordon, we had a meeting where they brought everybody together and a mediation took place.

“I am just showing you how dedicated and committed ‘Dr Mac’ has been from since the inception of this group and she has been part of what we have literally become.”

A former independent senator, actor, storyteller, educator and public affairs announcer, McKenzie has been privy to the choir’s highs and lows.

She was there when the group morphed from an award-winning, high school outfit into a national cultural powerhouse.

And she was also there when Arnold, who has led the group to many exhilarating victories at home and abroad, decided one day to share his expertise with the south Trinidad-based group Jeunes Agape.

In an address, she recalled her response when Arnold told her about his decision.

“How you going to teach people yuh secret?” Mc Kenzie asked.

“But then I said, ‘Eastlyn, you are selfish.’ If what John is doing is so good that other people want him to come and teach them, it’s something good and then I eased off.”

She said she has also kept a scrap book of all of the choir’s performances and achievements.

“Wherever Signal Hill or a member performs or John Arnold is featured, I clip it out, whether he is meeting with presidents or when the choir sang for the late Queen of England or the late Desmond Tutu (South-African cleric and anti-apartheid activist).”

She recalled former chief secretary Orville London had also written one of the forewords in the choir’s 25th anniversary booklet.

Mc Kenzie observed that the choir continues to place heavy emphasis on costuming.

Newspaper clippings and photographs of Signal Hill Alumni Choir’s performances over the years. -

“The costuming was always relevant to the performance. They didn’t just put on things because it looked good. It had to relate to what they wanted to do.”

The choreography, movement and interpretation, she said, also had to reflect the song.

She said for the group to survive for 40 years, its members exhibit certain qualities.

“The members of the group must have a certain amount of ’umph.’ They have to know to be disciplined.”

Mc Kenzie, who has hosted many of the choir’s concerts, said she makes a point of being punctual.

“I thrive on punctuality and as I say these days to my people, ‘We must stop punishing punctuality.’ That is what we do when we start late.”

She recalled supervising the choir at one point when Arnold was away.

“They were committed and disciplined. That is the mark of strength. Discipline in the absence of the manager. That is the a mark of respect, not only for the manager but for themselves.”

Mc Kenzie observed the members also love what they do.

“You enjoy what you are doing. You can see it in your performance. The vigour, the energy, the strength, the commitment. Everything comes out in your facial expressions when you are performing.”

She said the enthusiasm with which they perform is reflected in the responses of their respective audiences.

“You are seeing the fruits of your efforts in the comments people make. Even is the show ‘buss,’ yuh still happy. Yuh singing to the chairs because I believe after you sing, them chairs does be jumping up and down.”

Like Arnold, Mc Kenzie also acknowledged that the group had its fair share of challenges, “But when you overcome a challenge you feel strong,”

She believes a group is only as strong as its leader.

“John likes the challenges and because of that he keeps growing. You go back to his performances, from his first stint on the piano and you see he improves.”

Mc Kenzie said Arnold also researches his material and is always willing to learn and progress.

“If he remained where he started. If you mark time on the spot too long, you dig a hole. John researches, he expands himself and whatever he picks up he brings it to the choir.

“So he keeps improving, more songs. He isn’t afraid to share with other people and to learn from them and apart from that he also improves himself.”

Signal Hill Alumni Choir musical director John Arnold, centre, chats with tenor bass musician Jerry Kelly and former independent senator Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie at the exhibition, which was held at the Scarborough Library on July 3. - Photo by Corey Connelly

Mc Kenzie said although she has known him for a long time, she is still mesmerised by his talent as a musician.

“About three weeks ago, I looked at him play and I wanted to block out the music because all I was seeing was his fingers on the keys. It is mesmerising to watch John on the keys. He doesn’t even have a script. He knows the keys. My God, it is like clockwork.”

In her signature folksy manner, she told Arnold, “You have a jumbie in yuh head inno, John. Yuh like Shadow (Winston Bailey). It seems as though when you rehearse, you know what is coming after the next.”

Mc Kenzie said he must be treasured.

“We have to acknowledge you as someone who keeps going because Signal Hill’s existence is not an event. Signal Hill Alumni choir is a process that goes from one stage to the next. Therefore, this process has to keep going. You have to learn to sustain.

She said the exhibition, which ends on July 17, could prove useful to young people interested in the performing arts.

“Parents could bring their children now that they are on holidays. Let them learn because it is not only academia. It is also the extra-curricular.”

Mc Kenzie said children must be encouraged to “Spread your wings out from book alone.”

She congratulated the choir for staying together for 40 years.

“Congratulations on learning, growing and developing. Tobago is on the map musically because of Signal Hill. Keep it going.”


"Signal Hill Alumni Choir turns 40"

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