Portland’s multicultural chorus speaks out against stereotypes

The Bengali poet and 1913 Nobel Laurette Rabindranath Tagore claimed: “Music is the purest form of art … therefore true poets … seek to express the universe in terms of music. The singer has everything within him. The notes come out from his very life. They are not materials gathered from outside.”

As Andrew Kania writes in his gloss on the philosophy of music: “The central idea is that music’s expressiveness consists in the resemblance of its dynamic character to the dynamic character of various aspects of human beings undergoing emotions.” That is to say, music mirrors our reactions to our internal experiences. A sad song resembles something of our own physical expression of grief, like the tone and mood of weeping. In a way, such theories of music universalize certain human experiences and allow us to connect across differences.

This sense of connection is part of what is so compelling about Portland’s local, multicultural chorus, Pihcintu. A 17-year-old first generation Vietnamese-American member of the chorus named Cathy put it this way: “Singing is a very clear, strong way to express your feelings. … You can hear our message in the lyrics of the songs we sing. But you can also feel it throughout the melody.”

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Pihcintu is an all-female chorus, and Cathy is one of 32 members. With ages ranging from 10-23 years old, the singers come from seventeen different countries, including Cambodia, China, Congo, El Salvador, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Vietnam, the British West Indies, Zambia, and others. I spoke with five members (all of whom wished to withhold last names), and they often mentioned the power of music to bring together and forge connections within this diverse group, as well as between the chorus and the audience.

“We all have a different story,” Cathy went on to say. “Nothing is the same. We’re all diverse. … But at the same time, even though we’re all different, we’re all the same, too. And I like how we can communicate that with everyone though our songs.”

To be the same and to be different. One definitive characteristic of American culture is found in the robust diversity of a country founded on immigration in which there is nonetheless a deep sense of national identity. And yet, perhaps now more than ever as Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, continues to affirm his commitment to deport 11 million immigrants and build a wall on our southern border, we also seem to be a country with a profound case of cultural amnesia, forgetting that our similarities began with differences.

Pihcintu, while forging connection through singing, is also here to remind us of the importance of diversity. “The idea behind the chorus,” said Con Fullam, the founder and director of Pihcintu, “was basically to give kids their voices back. When you come to a foreign country, you literally lose your voice. … So the chorus is a way to give these kids their voices back.” And in doing so, Fullam hopes to remind us of “the incredible vitality and contribution that immigrants are bringing to this country.”

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Fullam founded Pihcintu in 2005. On average, the chorus sings for roughly 20,000 people a year, and they have performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, at the request of the United Nations high commission for refugees, and the United Nations Plaza in New York, among other notable venues. They have also performed with The Portland Symphony Orchestra and, more recently, they opened for the Maine Democratic Party convention. They practice once a week, at the Root Cellar on Washington Street, where I spoke with some of Pihcintu’s members.

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Twenty-two-year-old Nyawal, one of the Chorus’s longest standing members, has been with Pihcintu for almost 10 years. She is from Sudan, grew up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and came to the U.S. in 2001. When I asked her about her experience in the refugee camp, she recalled that, “The only source of food was from The United Nations. … You built your own house. When it comes to getting food, everybody goes to the same UN area.” She paused, and then said, “It was a long walk. There was a specific place where you get water, and everybody has to walk there every day.” She went on to enumerate some of the specifics: there wasn’t any electricity, there were very few cars, and during her entire childhood, she saw a doctor just one time. Yet recalling this, Nyawal smiled: “But that’s what I was used to,” she said. “It wasn’t traumatic at the time. I remember it as positive, to be honest with you.” 

Arriving in the U.S. in 2001 was a massive change for Nyawal, and she likened her experience as a young immigrant to that of being a translator: “Any young immigrant who comes, you are automatically put in the role of being a translator. … You learn to communicate very quickly.” I took her to mean a translator in the sense of interpreting language, but also in a sense that extends into the role of conveying something larger about her own culture and story. And as with truly conveying any story, this can often mean trying get one’s audience to rethink some of their assumptions. This is especially pressing when it comes to immigration, considering some of the more pernicious narrative tropes that circulate in the media, drawing connections between immigration and the threat of terrorism, or immigration and American unemployment, to name two of the more salient examples.

For Nyawal, Pihcintu has been instrumental in doing this. The music itself is a powerful mode of connecting with people, she explained, but Pihcintu also serves as a platform for the young women in the chorus to literally tell their stories and talk about their own experiences as immigrants. Last fall, Nyawal opened for Pihcintu at the United Nations in New York, speaking to over 3,000 people at an event called “Under One Sky.” On other occasions, she has opened for the chorus by speaking about her story and issues relevant to her experience. “We try to change stereotypes,” she said. Through music there is connection, and through this connection, Pihcintu opens up lines of communication for the young women in the chorus to talk about their own stories.

Fatimah, a 12-year-old member of Pihcintu, put it this way: “Singing interests people. It can lure them into what’s going on. It’s another way to attract them.” Fatimah is from Iraq, and moved to the U.S. when she was 6, in 2010. Her mom worked as a translator in Baghdad during the war. “It was kind of depressing back then,” Fatimah says, referring to the difficulties that confronted Fatimah and her mom. “It was kind of hard to work as a woman.” Fatimah didn’t learn English until she moved to the U.S., but now her English is immaculate, and as she talks, I can’t help but notice a level of understatement, an avoidance of hyperbole that seems strikingly mature for her age.

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For Fatimah, like Nyawal, music is a means to spread a message. When I asked her about this message, instead of explaining it to me directly, she asked me if I knew who Donald Trump was. I couldn’t help but smile. “My brother says that if he [Trump] gets elected, we might get kicked out of America, but my mom says that we’re citizens now. … So I don’t really know what’s going to happen. … But it’s kind of scary to think that he’s just manipulating people, and telling people that they should be afraid of us. But they don’t really know us. … It kind of scares me. What’s going to happen in my future? Where am I going to have to go?”

The juxtaposition between Trump’s message and the message Pihcintu has to offer is telling indeed: “When I sing with the girls,” Fatimah said, “…everybody is different. We all have these different characteristics, but we work together. … And people are astonished because they see all these happy girls who are different, but they’re always happy together.”

Through Pihcintu, Rocil hopes to convey a similar message. Her parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador before she was born, and their experience as immigrants has deeply informed the story Rocil would like to tell. “I want to destroy the stereotype that immigrants come here to steal jobs and money and welfare.” Rocil went on to describe how countries like Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador are rife with gang violence. To put some numbers to her point, according a recent article in the LA Times, “The national homicide rate in El Salvador is almost 116 per 100,000, more than 17 times the global average.” NPR has reported staggering rates of twenty murders a day in Honduras, and according to the United States Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Guatemala averages 96 murders per week.

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“People are getting killed and threatened and kidnapped, and they’re coming here to be safe, to escape all of that. And to go back means to die.” Rocil is 16 years old, her parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador to escape civil war, and she is acutely aware of the significance of November’s presidential election. “It’s hard right now with everything being so anti-immigration … especially with the presidential election.”

Recently, Rocil has been listening to a lot of musical soundtracks and her favorite among them, “Hamilton,” is a narrative about Alexander Hamilton’s life. Rocil takes comfort in the way the musical reminds us of an America built on and enriched by immigration. Reaching for the right word to describe a history of such diversity, Rocil paused, and I offered that perennial metaphor of a melting pot. She nodded, conceded too, that Pihcintu is also its own kind of melting pot — a shared identity forged through song but nonetheless composed of differences.

And yet, if Pihcintu is to serve as an analogy for something larger than the chorus itself, if we are to draw parallels between the eclectic array of voices in the choir uniting under one song and an American history that finds its most familiar metaphor in the idea of a melting pot, the underlying point is that no matter the context — whether in song or in public discourse — we must always make room for differences and the voices that represent those differences.

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The last woman I spoke with from the Chorus, Naumu, grew up in Uganda. She came to the U.S. when she was 8 years old. The transition, she said simply, was “very scary … I didn’t know the language. We had to fit in, and learn the language, and just start over.” When I asked her why her family came to the U.S., her simple and yet deeply significant answer was “war.” “It was hard,” she said, referring to her first couple of years in the US. But singing, being part of Pihcintu, has helped: “It’s a way to express yourself. … It’s such a great opportunity to be around people that are like you.” Of course, the wonderful irony of this is that in many ways these girls couldn’t be more different. They come from all over the world and vastly different cultural contexts. But through the act of singing and telling their own stories, the similarities and points of connection these young women share couldn’t be more apparent. “Everyone has a voice,” Naumu said. “And people shouldn’t be scared to use it, and help the people that are hidden in the dark come out and express themselves. They can do it through anything. Singing. Dancing. …” Naumu smiled, and stopped there, which is as good a place as any to start.               

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