Thursday May 16, 2013

WESTMINSTER WEST -- There’s a signpost at the foot of the little hill where the Westminster West Congregational Church stands that’s covered with signs pointing out the distances from there to other places in the world.

Sydney -- 10,017 miles. Tokyo -- 6,630. South Pole -- 8297. Rome -- 4150. Kabul -- 6555. Putney -- 7. Saxtons River -- 6.

That makes the church an apt meeting place for a chorus that thinks and sings globally as it meets locally every Tuesday night.

The 95-voice River Singers Community Chorus can fill a room with rich, resonant sound and fill hearts with buoyant, life-affirming feelings as they dive into community-based music from many cultural and musical traditions.

Now in its 20th year, the River Singers began humbly, founded by Mary Cay Brass as an outlet for her interest in the music of other cultures, particularly from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and other languages. Those were interests nurtured by time she spent with Village Harmony and on a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the former Yugoslavia.

"It started small, and it just kept growing," said Brass. "I didn’t really think about it too much. I just put one foot in front of the other."

The River Singers grew organically and now number 95 people who range in age from 10 to past 80. Every Tuesday evening, the Westminster West Congregational Church hums to life as singers come in, first in a trickle and then in a noisy deluge, delighted to see each other and sing with each other once again.

"It is a family. Everyone is just so close and connected. I can’t imagine Tuesday nights without it," said Janet Buchan of North Walpole, N.H., who started with the group as a teenager 14 years ago as her parents sought to find outlets for her musical interests.

Eventually, her mom, Lois Buchan joined as well.

"It’s great mother-daughter time," said Lois Buchan. "The music and the world connections we’ve made with all the different cultures are tremendous."

Indeed, the River Singers is something like a global village, and not just because of the repertoire. They have hosted choirs from England, Holland, Bulgaria, Georgia and the Boys Choir of Kenya, and Brass has led trips with singers to Eastern Europe -- a fifth trip to Macedonia will happen this summer.

Proceeds from their concerts typically benefit global causes.

On Saturday, the River Singers will perform at 7:30 p.m. at the White Church in Grafton. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures Program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro.

The repertoire for this Saturday’s concert is pure River Singers -- songs in the gospel tradition, a Macedonian love song, an Albanian work song, a Yiddish folk song, an English pub song, an early American shape note song, and a humorous song from the Bahamas.

Also at the concert will be a Rwandan spiritual taught to the group by River Singer Appolinaire William, a native of Rwanda, who is pursuing his doctorate in environmental sciences at Antioch University in Keene, N.H.

William found the group quite by chance -- he was staying for a time in Westminster West when a friend said she thought there was a choir that rehearsed right down the road from where he lived.

That was three years ago, and William has found a home in the River Singers.

"For me this choir is like therapy. It’s more than just having fun. It’s more about being in a community of people who care about you and love you," said William. "Here I feel like I’m in a family."

It’s a family that does more than sing together. When William and another international student in the group found they needed financial help because funding for their college aid came up short, the River Singers rallied and in short order had raised $9,000 from among themselves to close the gap.

"New England is different from other places I’ve been. It’s a beautiful community where people care about each other," said William.

William has paid their kindness forward in the best possible currency -- songs. He has taught the group Rwandan songs, including one for Saturday’s concert. The group has taken quickly to the Rwandan songs, mastering the music, rhythms and language. When William showed a YouTube of the River Singers to friends in Rwanda, they couldn’t believe how well the group handled it.

Another special leader joining Brass and the River Singers for this Saturday’s concert is Dr. Kathy Bullock of Berea, Ky, a professor of music at Berea College where she directs the Black Music Ensemble, a 70 voice choir that specializes in performance of African-American sacred music. She has coached the River Singers before and will work with the group for a fourth time, teaching teaching the singers gospel songs that are will be performed Saturday.

"She’s an inspiration. She comes in here and in two hours she’s got us singing like an African-American gospel choir," said Brass.

Some of the River Singers’ repertoire is done a cappella; the rest with accompaniment from Walter Slowinski on clarinet, Mary Lea on fiddle, Andy Davis and Brass on accordion, Julian Gerstin on percussion and Joe Blumenthal on bass.

The Rwandan song will feature the group’s own Afro-pop band with saxophonist Bill Ballard, percussionist Gerstin and Will Danforth on guitar.

Danforth joined the River Singers with his daughter about a decade ago.

"The first rehearsal, seeing what we were doing, was bringing tears to my eyes. It was like ‘Wow, I’m home,’" said Danforth. "I love the people. It’s a fantastic community of people, and I love the repertoire."

Admission to Saturday’s concert is $14, $10 for seniors and students, with proceeds going to SIT’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures Program.

For information, contact mcbrass@vermontel.net or visit www.marycaybrass.com.