It might be the only choir in Tacoma in which everyone shakes hands during warm-ups. It might be the only choir combining “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music” with Michael Jackson. But it’s definitely the only choir singing “When You Believe” in Kurdish, Arabic, Korean and Cambodian, because director Erin Guinup has added those lyrics specifically for her singers, a mixed group of immigrants and U.S.-born Tacomans.
Singing as Community House Choir, Guinup’s new group will be performing at upcoming citizenship events for National Welcoming Week, Sept. 16-25. But they aim bigger: to make friends across cultures through song.
“Is that right?” asks Guinup as she listens carefully to a Sudanese woman repeat the Arabic for “When You Believe,” then transcribes it on the board. There are already phrases up there in Korean and Kurdish. “I know this part’s repetitive, everyone, but I wanted it to show how really, we’re all the same.”
Guinup, a Tacoma opera singer and choir director, is in the middle of one of the final rehearsals for the Tacoma Community House Choir before it performs Sept. 15 at the Museum of Glass and Sept. 17 at Pierce County’s annual Citizenship Celebration at Mount Tahoma High School.
Inspired by a Salt Lake City choir that mixes locals and refugees, Guinup began the choir in August, partnering with Tacoma Community House for both rehearsal space and to reach the recent immigrants and refugees whom the nonprofit serves.
Now, as singers gradually trickle in, the voices build in strength and beauty. First come warm-ups, which go beyond the usual scales to a descending “Hel-lo, neigh-bor!” with everyone cordially shaking hands. Guinup then takes the choir through the national anthem and a two-part version of “Do-Re-Mi,” a happy tune that also happens to be — as Julie Andrews points out in the famous musical — extremely easy to sing for those just learning.
Right now, most of the 20 choir members are United States-born Tacomans, and many are obviously used to singing. But there are a smattering of other nationalities and those new to Western music. It’s also clear everyone’s having a lot of fun.
“OK, this isn’t an English boy choir kind of song,” jokes Guinup, as they move on to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” “Come on — snap those fingers!”
The smooth, funky harmonies start again, and pretty soon everyone’s grooving along, laughing as they try to snap off-beat and turn pages at the same time.
“It’s my first time singing in English,” says Dalal Ali, who came to the U.S. from Sudan two years ago but is new to Tacoma. “I enrolled because I love music. My voice is not good to sing, but (the music) is very beautiful, and I met some people from different countries.”
Is it hard spitting out all those words in the Jackson song?
“Yes!” laughs Ali. “But it is coming.”
“I think it’s really blissful,” says Junyeob Kim, a student at Tacoma Community College who as a teen migrated here from South Korea with his family. “I’ve been singing in choirs my whole life, but this community environment is very good. I feel like I should have been here my whole life.”
It’s clear Guinup chose her songs deliberately. Making miracles happen by believing in yourself, and helping those in need by “starting with the man in the mirror” — this is a choir that lives what it sings.
“This project isn’t as much about producing top-notch music, more about relationships and friendships,” Guinup says. “Like Dalal, when she came to her first rehearsal she was really nervous. Then she made friends and got more confident — it was so beautiful to see.”
During the break and afterward, singers shake hands, exchange names and smiles. One soprano helps a couple of tenors get their pitches on the piano, while during rehearsal another sits between Ali and her Sudanese friend, marking their place in the score.
For Guinup, and for other U.S.-born choir members, it’s a way to get out of the usual social circle and help others.
“I’d been trying to figure out how I could interact more with refugees in our community,” says Eilene Stevens, a Community House volunteer who heard the choir when she was detailed to bring cookies. “It’s good to hear their stories and know what they go through, because we take things so much for granted.”
Guinup’s hoping her choir will grow and perform elsewhere, renamed as Tacoma Connections Choir, and she’s working on plans for an even bigger event that unites the community through song. But that’s not all.
“I hope it starts a movement,” says the singer. “Everyone loves music. You always add music to make something better — a movie, an event. Music helps us connect. And there’s something really special about singing the same words at the same time. Our hearts beat in sync, we breathe in sync, we’re thinking the same thoughts.”
Tacoma Community House Choir
Hear them: Performances 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at Museum of Glass (free for ArtWalk); 10 a.m. Sept. 17 for Citizenship Celebration at Mount Tahoma High School, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma. Free.
Join them: The non-auditioned choir is looking for new members from all walks of life. Singers must attend all rehearsals and performances and undergo a background check. To join, contact Erin Guinup at email@example.com or register at tchchoir.blogspot.com.