Dubai: They've turned a "dead hour" into a box office hit. Some of them have even been mistaken as singing ghosts. But it's all part of the fun for one all-Filipino chorale in Dubai.
The excited chatter of more than a dozen people fills the Gulf News studio on a week night. Accountants, administrators, teachers, engineers, executives. Right now, however, they’re the collective force known as Dubai Vocal Ensemble.
“Music really brings people together. Look at us. We all came from different parts of the Philippines. Nobody is an officemate here. We all came from different companies. Music brought us together,” Sharon Elaurza, one of Dubai Vocal Ensemble’s pioneers, tells Gulf News #Pinoy.
The award-winning chorale has been topping choir competitions in the UAE since 2010, the latest of which was the grand championship in last year's Bayanihan Festival in Dubai. The members were also prepping up for the Tbilisi Chorale Festival in Georgia where they were handpicked to perform as the festival’s first Filipino chorale.
But first, we wanted to put them to the #Pinoy challenge. Could they take a nursery rhyme and a Filipino folk song and give it a unique twist in two minutes? Watch what happened:
Videography by Sonia Abbas Shah
The choir that helps Dubai pray
The Dubai Vocal Ensemble is one of the emirate’s few Filipino choirs, starting as a seven-member group in 2004 to become a 35-strong chorale.
When they’re not competing or performing in private shows, they’re serving the community the way they know best: song in prayer. Perhaps you might have heard of them: the regulars behind the angelic music at Dubai’s St. Mary’s Church’s Friday morning mass. They’ve been lending their music to the service for the last 14 years.
“One of the best compliments we have received is ‘Thank you for helping us to pray’,” says Joy Santos, a music teacher who serves as the choir conductor.
No wonder the 6am mass has turned from a “dead hour” with a handful of churchgoers to a packed service. For that they’ve been called inspiration, even heroes.
“All through the years we have gathered so many singers, and we have also gathered so many people in church,” Elaurza adds.
No day off
It’s challenging work, of course, with members having to balance work, choir performances and practice sessions with just one day off to spare each week.
“Who would like to give up their rest day for something as rigorous as choir singing?” Elauza says. But they prod on. “Giving up our weekend. That sums up the joy we feel through singing, through music,” she explains.
Commitment is the biggest factor that the group looks for in members, says Santos. They have to wake up at 4am on Friday just to arrive in church at 5:30am. That means giving up late Thursday night parties.
“Most of us have lost our social life on Thursday. Everyone wants to have an early night because they’re excited to perform the next day,” Elaurza says.
“Some of my friends would sometimes say, ‘Hanna, come on, just this one time!’ I always say no,” choir member Hanna Obera says with a wry smile.
‘She thought she heard a ghost’
They practice every chance they get, anywhere they can.
For Obera, it was that one time in the office washroom. “It was 10am and there was no one around so I started practicing in my falsetto voice. Suddenly, one of my Filipina officemates crept inside with a slight look of horror in her face. She had overheard my singing from outside and thought she heard a ghost! I said it was me rehearsing!” she said with a laugh.
“Some who do not have an accommodation, when they are studying the music pieces, they have to study in the bathroom and lock themselves in,” says Elaurza.
Lunch time is the best time for vocal practice when no one is in the office, says Jerwin Borbon, one of the group’s newest members. They’ve had other “creative” practice venues, too. The fire exit for one. Or the parking lot, says Annie Estorque, 25, one of the group’s youngest and newest members who admitted going on Google to find the group. “I searched for ‘best choir in Dubai’ and Dubai Vocal Ensemble popped out,” she says.
There are other struggles, too.
Borbon says he has had to give up family time for choir performances in church, particularly on Christmas day. “But my family is used to it, they even call me ‘father’,” he says with a grin.
Eugene Generoso, 41, who has been singing in a choir since he was 13, said he didn’t expect to meet roadblocks on the way back to his first love of singing.
“When I joined this choir, I got promoted as a trainor. It was a very demanding position. I really wanted to commit because I found the choir. But until I lost that job, that was when I found commitment to the choir,” Generoso says. He has found a more flexible job since then. “It’s just the best feeling practicing music you love,” he says.
Everyone considers each other an extended part of the family, which helps them cope with homesickness, says Santos. They used to gather in one apartment after Friday service, and cook lunch for the group.
“We treat ourselves here as a second family. We don’t feel homesick,” says Santos, who used to host those Friday cookout sessions when she had her own rented apartment.
But it’s really their love of music that brings them together. They practice as a group, and perform as a group, even if it means putting in an extra two hours for a pitch perfect exercise after Friday mass.
“That’s why most of the members stick within the group. You have the same discipline, you have the same way of thinking, you have the same wavelength,” says Obera.
For the love of music
It's easy because most Filipinos are musically inclined, they say. Whether its Charice who rose to fame through YouTube, Lea Salonga who bagged a Tony for Miss Saigon in Broadway before conquering Disney, or just your average Filipino with a karaoke microphone in hand.
So why do Filipinos love music? “Maybe because when you sing it makes you happy, and Filipinos are a happy bunch,” says Obera.
Elaurza says it is part of the Filipino culture, “growing up with music”.
“We celebrate in any way through music. In church, we have music. In entertainment we have music. In putting a baby to sleep we use music. So it’s innate. It’s part of the tradition. It’s very cultural and it’s very close to our heart,” she explains.
It’s also helpful, “especially if you’re away from home”, she adds.
“Music has been the emotional anchor of most Filipinos. We’re spread all over the world and we’re using that particular trait to be able to show what we can to the world. We’re excellent with our job but at the same time we’re also very good with our music,” she says.
For now, the group is happy to introduce traditional Filipino music to the UAE and re-introduce it to the Filipino expatriates here. And they vow to continue making inspiring music.
“As long as they don’t tell us it’s bad music, we’re fine!” Obera says with a laugh.