x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

All together now

A barbershop a cappella group unites a diverse group of women through the love of song.

Dubai's ex-pat women get together to belt out some tunes during the Dubai Harmony Chorus practice.
Dubai's ex-pat women get together to belt out some tunes during the Dubai Harmony Chorus practice.

It's 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening and the sound of female voices echoes down the empty corridors of Jumeirah Primary School. It's coming from the gymnasium, where members of the Dubai Harmony chorus are warming up their vocal cords. A few latecomers scurry through the darkness outside to join in quickly, aware that the summer concert is just weeks away and every minute of rehearsal counts. Nearly 500 people will be expecting us to be pitch and word perfect when we perform a selection of familiar songs in unaccompanied four-part harmony, barbershop style.

We're almost there with the fast-moving words of I Will Survive, but suddenly, our director Gayle Powell announces: "Now, for the moves," and 40 mouths drop open in simultaneous horror. We're beginning to realise that she's expecting almost professional standards. I'm singing the baseline, which has few words to learn but anchors the rest of the chorus, so if we lose the rhythm, the whole thing falls apart. The thought of letting the other three parts down forces us to concentrate intensely.

It's more difficult than you might think - singing and moving at the same time. Robitha Roozing and Nita Brinkhorst, two members of the performance team, have worked out the choreography and stand out front to put us through our paces. Tension fills the vast gym, words become jumbled. We're suddenly off key and the timing is shot to pieces. Powell bursts out laughing and tells us not to worry; it will get easier the more we do it.

At the break we're told to report to a tailor in Satwa as soon as possible to be measured for our costumes, pink-sequinned waistcoats over black trousers and top. We're briefed on make-up and all supplied with the same lipstick and nail varnish (bright red that takes some getting used to if all you usually wear is a pale lip gloss). There's a great deal to think about and the new members look at each other nervously. Thankfully, older hands have been through several seasons and reassure us that it will be all right on the night. I resolve to make sure I know my part in time for a section rehearsal on Saturday morning. What started as an interesting hobby has become quite a commitment.

The thing is that despite the nerves, it's fun. I've always sung in choirs and smaller groups but the distinctive a cappella barbershop style of singing was something new. I signed up after seeing an advertisement in Time Out and went along for a few weeks to see if I liked it and if it fitted into my busy working life. Newcomers are always welcome to Tuesday night rehearsals. Powell needed more basses, which suited me fine, since I have always sung alto. I was soon hooked by the sheer exhilaration of making music with this disparate group of women from all over the world. This season, we are singing many numbers that I know already, or rather I thought I knew, such as Let It Be, Top of the World and Dancing in the Street, as well as some barbershop favourites such as Rockin' Robin and what is practically Dubai Harmony's anthem That's What Friends Are For.

Barbershop arrangements are quite different from anything I've sung in before and although I can read music, I was glad of the CDs we were all given of the various songs with each of the four parts specially recorded. For several weeks, I've been singing away in my car, learning the bass part on long journeys. The chorus is run along the lines of the Sweet Adelines, the worldwide organisation of women singers committed to advancing the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education and performance. It's non-profit and any money made from ticket sales is ploughed back into the chorus along with dues from members that pay for the purchase of music, copying arrangements onto CDs and for the costumes we use to perform in.

Eight section leaders head up different teams to spread the workload. There's a music team, performance, PR, finances, communications, venue, plus the management team, which includes a director and president who meet once a month. Between them they plan the season, choose the music, make up the CDs, organise the transportation of the risers that the chorus stands on and keep the finances and sort out costumes.

Dubai Harmony was started by Lyn Jacquemot, an American who had sung barbershop in the States. When she arrived in Dubai with her husband 16 years ago, she put an advertisement on the noticeboard of her local Choithram supermarket for women who like to sing. Three turned up the first week and there were eight singers by week two. They would meet in a small hut near the old Dubai Performing Arts Centre. Gradually, the chorus grew.

Phyllis Holmquest from Canada was its next director and stayed with the chorus for 10 years. Sadly, she passed away last July. Powell, a teacher from Halesowen in the West Midlands area of the UK, became the director in 2004. Although Dubai Harmony is affiliated to the Sweet Adelines, it is not a full member. Many of the choruses are US-based and of an extremely high standard. Members tend to live in the same area and sing together for years. Says Powell: "Some of the US choruses will work for two years on a song to perfect it up to competition standard."

The cosmopolitan and often transient nature of Dubai residents poses its own unique problems. At the last count, there were 18 different nationalities in our group, which makes for an interesting variety of pronunciations. Simple words like "father" or "whisper" come out 18 different ways when we sing. Help was at hand, however, during our annual two-day "retreat", which was held this year at a lovely coastal resort, The Cove Rotana at Ras al Khaimah, where the visiting master director Martijn Hoeksema from Holland soon had us making the same shapes with our mouths to give us a more unified sound. The retreat was hard work, but we learnt a great deal about blending our voices and the improvement in our singing is marked. There was also a lot of laughter during the two days as we began to get to know each other.

The United Nations nature of the chorus has its advantages when we hold parties. A mouth-watering array of diverse cuisine appears on the table. This year, Powell held one at her home in Jumeirah and everyone brought along their special dish. There was Annie Alister-Jones's famous pavlova and one of Nasarene Jeddy Dhanki's legendary cakes, plus an array of Indian dishes. I thought about bringing genuine Irish stew made from lamb bones but settled for shepherd's pie.

Quite often, one nationality takes over and they decorate the house and cook food from that country. "At the Indian party we all wore saris and did Bollywood dancing," Powell remembers. In the spirit of Sweet Adeline choruses everywhere, the accent in Dubai Harmony is united in one respect and that is the friendship and support it gives to its members who come from all sorts of different backgrounds. The current crop of members include a doctor, several company directors and teachers, a silversmith, IT specialists, a psychologist, shop workers, housewives and mothers all brought together by their love of singing.

Dubai Harmony's president, Julie Meer, from Black Creek, Wisconsin, has been a member for more than 10 years. "My closest friends in Dubai are members of the chorus," she says. "There is a tremendous support network. We share parents and grandparents. When anyone's parents or grandparents come out here on holiday, they are always invited to each other's parties." One of the members had breast cancer last year and needed to be taken to the specialist unit at Al Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, so members of the chorus got together and arranged a rota of lifts for her. Others brought food over to her house so she wouldn't have to worry about her family.

Says Meer: "Babies are born and grow up. They very often find themselves taking part in a concert, carrying the flag representing the country of one of the members. They will even pass their little jobs on to younger friends. One baby used to sleep on a mat at the back of the hall during rehearsals. When people get married in Dubai or their children get married the chorus will turn out to sing at their weddings."

As often happens in expat communities, people make friends quickly. There is also a higher turnover of members but people are used to that in Dubai. Powell says: "When people leave it is always very sad, we are losing two very popular members from Holland this summer. But it is amazing how the hole fills. You are a newbie for a season but next year you'll be an old hand. "We get regular e-mails from people who have left. It's great to hear about what they are doing now. Many of them form new choruses. They all miss the camaraderie that they had here, though. One former member, Ola, returned to Poland begging us never to remove her from the circulation list. She says she still can't listen to the CD of one of our concerts because she misses it so much. And before our concerts we get e-mails of encouragement from all over the world from people who have left."

The song That's What Friends Are For always raises a tear or two and it will have particular poignancy when we sing it at our concert in Jumeirah Beach Hotel auditorium on June 5, because Powell will be returning to the UK shortly afterwards and we're now looking for a new director. It's a worry as we all know it will be hard to match her enthusiasm, drive and musical skills. "It's the downside of Dubai, unfortunately. People leave and go back home but we carry on. Also people tend to make friends very quickly because everybody knows that's the way it is out here. Some people think it's all going to fall apart when a key member leaves but it never does and it won't happen this time either," Powell says firmly.

We are determined to be the best we can be for her sake at the concert, which is almost sold out already. Come September, there will be another 10 songs to learn in time for Christmas when the chorus is much in demand for corporate functions and private parties along with a smaller group and two quartets. We'll be singing the usual mix of Christmas carols and traditional barbershop numbers like Frosty the Snowman and White Christmas.

Singers who have left will be missed and talked about. E-mails and photographs will be circulated and our own little Dubai Harmony network of friends will grow along with our repertoire. It's so much more than just a chorus. These women are friends for life. On Top of the World, June 5, Jumeirah Beach Hotel. 6pm-8pm. For tickets, contact Julie Meer on 056 690 7052. pkennedy@thenational.ae