Written by Samantha Chang
Photos by Isaac Soong
On the 7th of September 2018, Sunway University Choir showcased their 6th annual recital. This year’s theme was ‘Messages’, which featured songs that discuss pressing social issues around the globe. ‘Messages’ was enjoyable as it was educational; the audience not only had the chance to learn about world issues, culture and history, but were also exposed to songs ranging from popular to obscure, from modern to traditional. They also tackled issues that affect us from a bigger picture, such as war, all the way down to issues that affect the individual, such as mental health. Duality seemed to be the second, undercurrent theme of the recital – the choir reflected this theme themselves as they used the better angels of our human nature (music, empathy, and fellowship) to address and protest the darker side of humanity.
Their opening song was a prime example of this dichotomy. They opened strongly with “Amavolovolo”, a traditional Zulu dowry song with an infectious rhythm and a joyous melody. However, we’re not sure what was more hair-raising: the beautiful harmonies melding together, or the disturbing historical context behind it. The lyrics, written during South Africa’s tumultuous Apartheid era, roughly translate to “We are scared to go to KwaMashu (a township) because there are too many revolvers”. One would never guess that this upbeat tune was actually about the racial segregation and the fear of death.
The songs that followed were about the struggles and ennui of modern life – something everyone in the hall could probably relate to. “Money Money Money”, the ABBA classic, dealt with how most of our lives are centered around the dreary task of acquiring money, and the Pessimist, a jolly Scott Joplin tune, highlighted how life weathers us and makes us disillusioned and apathetic to the ongoings around us. The song was sung in an almost sardonic manner, as the lively melodies and gestures contrasted much with the subject matter.
The choir also tackled immigrant and refugee rights with the haunting “Wayfaring Stranger” and the bittersweet “Fairytale of New York”, which both tell a tale in first-person of the hardships immigrants experience in order to survive. Summed up beautifully in a poem read by conductor Ms Lai Suk Yim, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” They have not only called attention to how immigrants and refugees are often ignored and exploited in Malaysia, but have also actively contributed to fixing these issues by channeling all their proceeds to Tenaganita, an NGO working to protect the rights of women, refugees and immigrants.
Abuse was also given the spotlight with “Luka” by Suzanne Vega, a song narrated by a child trying to hide the fact that he’s being abused. The choir drove home the message by depicting the abuse through their acting.
We were also presented with anti-war songs, such as Green Day’s hit, “21 Guns” and a gorgeous canon written by Jewish songwriter, “A Million Nightingales”. A Million Nightingales took its lyrics from a Palestinian poem, which symbolizes unity in the plea for peace and freedom. “Selamat Pergi Pahlawanku” followed after, an old patriotic classic arranged by Malaysian composer-arranger, Yeo Chow Shern. A song written to commemorate the Malayan fighters who sacrificed much for our freedom, it is still relevant as we continue to uphold our bravery and our freedom of speech today.
Life is heavy, with or without all these aforementioned issues that plague us. Some of us turn to unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance abuse, when we are at the end of our rope. The song “Rehab” drew attention to this. The choir also covered “Waving Through a Window,” an extremely relatable piece about social anxiety from the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen. These issues are particularly pertinent to students as we are still in our formative years, and are therefore particularly vulnerable to stressors, which can be made worse by social isolation. WIthout protective factors, stressors may also lead us to turn to substance abuse for temporary relief.
The highlight of the night might just be “Please Stay”, a tear-jerker pleading for depression sufferers contemplating suicide to “just stay”. There were goosebumps in the atmosphere as the song reached its climax in a heavenly blend of harmonies and climbing piano keys; people were reaching for tissues left and right (including the author). This performance is an important one for us Malaysians, as pointed out by the singers, “Student suicides have risen over the years – most recent was the young student who shot himself in his campus toilet with a stolen gun.” It was sung with the purpose to destigmatize mental illness, as revealed by conductor Ms Suk Yim when asked about the theme: “I know students and friends who suffer from depression, and I felt mental health needed to be spoken about more.”
The night came to a close on a feel-good note with Datuk Sudirman’s “A Thousand Million Smiles”, arranged specially for Sunway’s choir by Yeo Chow Shern. A slideshow of smiling choir members played in the background as they touched all our hearts by singing about the kindness we humans are capable of giving one another.
Just when we thought we were done riding the emotional rollercoaster, the choir surprised us with an encore, featuring the hit song “This Is Me”. You could tell this song was meant for the dedicated singers to rejoice in their accomplishments and their individuality. The recital ended with a bang, literally, as confetti rained down over the audience, empowering everyone to join in this party of self-love.
The effort put into this recital was apparent, especially considering that there were a total of 12(!) songs to memorize. But the choir didn’t only stop at the songs; they also outdid themselves by adding creative and memorable bits, such as the “messages” read out loud from the glass bottles – which usually delved into a bit of background behind the songs. The introduction video was also well shot and edited; from the video, you could surmise that the team are well-knit and that they enjoyed themselves during the process. Despite the bleak subject matter of the songs at times, the love and celebration of humanity shone through and became the main takeaway. With this, there is no doubt that Sunway University has a choir to be proud of.