Left to right, Rita Achiro, Ehklas Ahmed and Judith Abdalla of the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus.
At practice this week, it's business as usual--which means goofing off, playing with make-up and braiding each others' long black hair. But then choral director Con Fullam snaps them to attention. "Let's make this a hot little rehearsal here. Let's make this happen!"
The girls file into two rows and stare straight at him and begin singing. The song's called Bells of Freedom and it was co-written by Fullam and one of the chorus' founding members.
"We're singing about peace, about coming together about stopping the wars back in our native lands, and singing about being able to go back and being able to go back and hold on to our languages and our families," says Judith Abdalla, who was born in Sudan and lived in Egypt for a while before coming to the U.S.
At 18, Abdalla is a den mother of sorts, along with some other of the young women in their teens and early 20s who've been in the chorus for a few years--such as Rita Achiro, who was also born in Sudan and raised in a refugee camp in Kenya.
"For somebpody to hear me sing and be like 'wow'--it makes me feel good, you know?" she says. "But I also love having more than one person's voice. Singing as a group it, like, sends a bigger message--you know, a message of hope."
For her chorus mate, Ehklas Ahmed, just getting out the message is cathartic. "In my country, in Darfur, right now there is a genocide that is happening as I'm talking right now, and for me I sing to feel better because I'm hopeless," she says. "I'm just one individual, I cannot do what I want to be able to do to stop the genocide, and that's the greatest pain I have: to see my people getting killed everyday. The only thing I can do is talk about it to other people, and make awareness."
"I hope that it gives them a sense of empowerment," says chorus director Con Fullam. "I hope that it gives them the feeling that they have regained their voice, many of them having lost it in many ways."
Fullam is an award-winning songwriter and performer with his hand in many projects. But Fullam felt compelled to start a multicultural chorus.
As the grandson of an Irish political asylee, Fullam says he feels a special affinity with refugees and immigrants and started recruiting kids from Portland schools. "Knowing that for me music has always been a very powerful healing thing I thought it'd be a great idea to invite as many different refugee communities as possible."
At any given time, there are as many as 30 members from 14 countries, ranging from Iraq to Somali and Cambodia. Children native to Maine are also welcome to join.
Pihcintu means "When she sings, her voice carries far" in Passamaquoddy. Fullam says the chorus quickly evolved into a girls' group when boys failed to show up for practice. And it's worked out just fine, with the girls regularly landing gigs, such as former Gov. Baldacci's inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.
Performances would have been contained to Maine if not for Patrice Samara, a New York-based producer at Alphabet Kids, a line of children's books and music CDs aimed at promoting multicultural understanding. "We wanted to produce an international CD and we called it Music for the World, but we did not really have the right artist," Samara says.
Then, a lawyer for Alphabet Kids--who is also a friend of Fullam's--suggested Samara fly up to Maine to check out Pihcintu. The rest is history. "We realized this fit the bill because not only were they talented, they represented everything that Alphabet Kids represents," Samara says.
Samara is working on booking the chorus gigs around the country, starting out with a performance before hundreds of people in Washington, D.C., in August for an event put on by the federal Office Of Refugee Resettlement.
This fall, Alphabet Kids released a Pihcintu CD. Proceeds from CD, as with any earnings from Pihcintu performances, will go toward charitable programs in the girls' native countries.
Samara is hopeful that other choruses will form, inspired by Pihcintu. "Many, many towns have immigrants, many resettled immigrants, to come together with local children. So we're hoping that this model will be embraced around the country."
Ehklas Ahmed and Judith Abdalla sound excited about their increasing stardom in their adopted country. They have their own music idols, ranging from Celine Dion to country star Brad Paisley. "It's kind of weird that I started liking country music: 'You're not a white girl, why are you listening to country music?'" Ehklas Ahmed says. "I like it, I don't know why, and every song has a meaning behind it."
But even though Ehklas sings in English in Pihcintu, she remains connected to her native country by song, too. "I sing with my cousins a lot, almost every Friday and Saturday night we sing about Sudan," she says. "We sing just any song that comes up inour head, we start singing right away."
You'll be hearing more from Ehlkas and the other Pihcintu singers in the future. An Alphabet Kids-produced documentary about the chorus is scheduled for release sometime next year. And Samara says more out-of-state performances will be announced shortly.
Learn more about the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus, and see a video of a recent performance.
Photos by Josie Huang.