So I Joined a Togolese Church Choir?

Tuesday is my favorite day of the week. The atrocities of Monday are over (sorry, Eliza!), there’s almost definitely a Law and Order: SVU marathon happening on USA, and a huge ice cream sundae always awaited me after new episodes of Dance Moms.

But in high school, there was one extra reason: from 2:30-4pm, we had Chanteclairs rehearsal.

Chanties was more than just a select chamber choir to me; it was family. It was the place where I could make truly beautiful music with lifelong friends. Together, we accomplished so much. Even on my worst days, I loved Chanteclairs.

Making music was one of the very few things in life that mattered so much to me that I thought I couldn’t live without it. But as always, life sometimes gets in the way. I gave up choir after sophomore year of college to focus on other things.
I don’t regret it; I ended up in Togo, West Africa! I joined the Peace Corps! I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. But I always felt like something was missing.

Although I am a scared Jewish boy in synagogue-less Togo, I’ve always been drawn to church music. My first Sunday in Nangbani, I heard La Chorale Saints Anges sing, and I knew I had to be a member of the group. Somehow, I lucked out! My host mom is a member, and she introduced me to the choir director, who said I could join right away!

As a member of the church choir, there are some rules. First, you have to wear this shirt with Mary, Mother of Jesus all over it.

Uh, happy Rosh Hashanah?
You also have to be on time to rehearsal or you pay 50F! That is the equivalent of about 9 cents, and it does not deter people from being late at all. You are also really not supposed to bring your dog to rehearsal, so I kind of wish my host mom hadn’t made me bring him to the church with me.
“Hey, how are you going to be a part of this choir if you don’t know any of the languages they sing in?” “Shut up, Amigo.”
I was extremely taken aback by how similar Saints Anges (Saintyclairs, as I like to call it) is to choirs back in the States (that’s what I call America now!). For example, the featured soloist walked into rehearsal half an hour late, wearing sunglasses. These were not necessary because a) rehearsal is inside, and b) it had been dark outside for an hour before she arrived.

Also, the attitudes of the voice parts are almost the same as well. The sopranos are beautiful singers who love talking and don’t necessarily realize that they aren’t the only ones singing. The altos don’t get any credit for singing really necessary and lovely harmonies. The tenors are either socially awkward or kind of show-offs. (I’m both!) And the basses don’t really know the music and are prone to picking fights with the conductor.

Here’s the gang! Once again, I missed the no smiling memo. One of these days, I’m gonna get it!

Let me talk about the conductor for a minute. We call him “Maitre,” which is French for “Millie.” (Legally, I am probably obligated to say that it is actually French for “Master.”) He is a kind and phenomenal conductor who has the same complaints as every other conductor I’ve ever had. “Look out at the audience and smile more!” “Basses, stay on the right notes!” “Please watch me!” “Carrie Thompson, you have to step on the beat!”

I am so grateful for this man. I also look tall in a picture! This country is really changing me.

He also got mad one night and started waving a really big stick around to get people to smile during one of the songs. If that isn’t exactly what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind, I don’t know what is.

Something that scared me a bit at first was a music theory issue. For those familiar, our choir doesn’t use a Fixed Do or a Moveable Do; rather, we use a sort of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Do that makes for some really surprising harmonies. The choir also doesn’t use sheet music. During my first practice, the choir president wrote down some lyrics on paper to help me out.

These lyrics helped me for almost 8 seconds!

The Maitre really kindly made me photocopies of all the sheet music he had, which helped me immensely. The rest of the choir already knows most of the music, as they have been going to this church probably since birth and have been singing the music ever since. I really find that lovely.

Something that I wish someone had mentioned to me before I signed up to be a member of the choir was that our first concert was LITERALLY A WEEK after my first rehearsal. I don’t think I’ve ever done as much choir concert prep in my life.

Let’s talk about this concert. I want to preface it by saying that the concert will forever be one of my lifelong favorite memories. It was an amazing night.

We had been practicing twice a day for the entire week to get ready. Usually one of these practices was the Maitre telling us that we had to come to practice and then making us clean the practice room. Sneaky!

As I was walking to the church on the night of the concert, a huge rainstorm forced me to hide out in my neighbor’s compound. I was horrified that I would miss my first concert, so I took a moto up to the church just in the nick of time.

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that everyone would universally agree that the concert would just operate on a rain delay schedule, so yes, I was the only person on time by about a half hour. I was also the only wet person. Of course!

This jacket is light blue.

This concert was no Sounds of the Spring 2008. (luckily, am I right? Pantheon burn!) Between each choir performance was either lip-syncing to famous Togolese music, a very strange but apparently funny skit with the conductor and my tenor friend Olivier, or a pastor shredding during a slightly uncomfortable rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I can’t make this stuff up.
Finally, it was our turn to perform! The crowd had been waiting patiently for the Saintyclairs, and we were finally ready to give them a great show!
What a crowd!

Our set was actually pretty good! Something that startled me a little bit was that the announcer for the evening would interrupt us in the middle of every song, and the audience would applaud. I had not prepared for that.
Every time I tried to dance, people laughed at me. I had prepared for that. But the laughter was that of supportive older women, who also gave me 40F (almost a nickel and a half!) as a reward for dancing well. Of course, I will be donating this money (and more!) back to the church that has brought me so much comfort and joy.

Sunday afternoon, we celebrated our awesome concert with a huge party! There was actually delicious food (and sardines), a chance to take some awesome pictures with the people who are in the process of becoming my true friends, and soft drinks!

“If the nun in the front could put away her iPad real quick, we can get this show on the road.”

“Are you seriously going to smile in this picture?” “Yes, Mom.”
This picture cracks me up. This is the Togolese equivalent of people pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Apparently, to celebrate a good concert, you get to dance around with this very heavy beaded Viking cap! Either that or I’m getting hazed.
We’re 1 chantie away from becoming Bleu in the Fâce!

After three years away from a choir, I can’t even tell you how great it feels to be back in a supportive, music-making environment. Peace Corps and this beautiful country have given me so many wonderful memories, and this is one that I’ll never forget for as long as I live.
I leave you with words that were taught to me by Lorraine Milovac, the woman who helped me get to where I am today.

“If music be the food of love, sing on!”


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