Olympics of Choral Music in Cincinnati


Can you wrap your mind around a 10-day convention where delegates from the US, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Zimbabwe, India, China, Russia, Ukraine, Great Britain and many other countries gather together and build a world of friendship?

Such a convention is actually happening now in Cincinnati at the 7th World Choir Games, the Olympics of choral music – the largest international choral competition in the world held every two years. Previous games have happened in Austria, China, Germany and South Korea. The Games are being held in the United States for the first time in Cincinnati OH.
‘The World Choir Games’ is the signature event of Interkultur, Germany-based organization that produces choral events all over the world. Cincinnati is waiting with bated breath for the second half of the games that commence on July 11. The first part of the Games is already on its way, transforming the city in the process.
This is not my first experience with the games. I was one of the 25 singers that represented the 2012 host city Cincinnati – in the 6th world choir games at Shaoxing China. What I saw at the games in China in July 2010 is etched in my memory. And I see it coming to life again already – with young singers from around the world attired in colorful costumes, working as a team, speaking in a collective voice, creating complex sounds capes sometimes punctuated with momentous pauses and dramatic gestures. All in the spirit of participation and celebrating the joy of singing
More than 360 choirs from 48 countries have registered to participate. There are roughly 80 regional choirs and choirs representing 25 US states. Dan Lincoln, the Director of the Cincinnati Convention Bureau asserts that the games have brought ‘extreme diversity’ to Cincinnati. In his words, “the games are a transforming experience. There was not a single person in the packed Aronoff center that was not moved by the performance of a choir of people with special needs”.
“The event draws those who love the art of choral singing into judicious competition before internationally acclaimed jurors in world class venues. Workshops with choral rock stars enrich the educational aspect of the games”, says Kim Mann, US Artistic Coordinator of Chorus Operations.

Jelena Dannhauer, Project Manager, World Choir Games 2012, who has seen the games evolve over the last several years says, “The experience for the singers is life changing. And it certainly reflects Interkultur’s motto ‘Singing together brings Nations together’
There is a tremendous amount of music in Cincinnati. The phrase ‘A city that sings’ rings in consonance with the name Cincinnati. Cincinnati is home to a large number of choirs, the best known of which is the nationally recognized May Festival Choir. It is this ‘host choir’ and the host ‘Cincinnati Pops Orchestra’ and the large number of state of the art performance facilities within walking distance of each other that catapulted Cincinnati’s bid for the games to the winning position among the many cities that vied with each other to get the games.
The economic and the socio-cultural impact of the games are tremendous. Ticket sales have already exceeded expectations even during this economy as this is an event that no one wants to miss. Indeed, this will be the largest convention that Cincinnati has ever hosted and it will be a significant accomplishment of the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Cultural interactions are happening on an unprecedented scale in Cincinnati as choirs from various countries, clad in their performance attire mingle and make friends with others at Cincinnati’s landmark fountain square not minding the torrid summer that is scorching the city.
Of the 48 countries participating in the games, the United States has fielded the largest number of choirs. The next largest contingent is from the other side of the world, China with about 55 choirs. Yes, China with its strong and widespread culture of western music is deep into choral singing. There are only three choirs from India (The Shillong Chamber Choir, the Akshayam Choir from Chennai and the Cambridge from Mumbai) while there are about 20 from Indonesia. Latvia, the home of the 2014 World Choir Games is represented by two choirs.
Choral music is not as big in India as it is in other countries. The west has been singing in choirs for hundreds of years. Community choirs, church choirs, University and school choirs rehearse every week and perform on a regular basis. Some of the greatest symphonic works have had a special place for ‘arranged voices’.
Such ‘musical arrangements’ are not an integral part of Indian culture. Indian music is about individual self expression while western music relies a lot on ‘musical (pre) arrangements’. This fundamental difference in approach to music could explain the lack of a choral effort in traditional Indian music.
I clearly remember a discussion the Indian music theory class that I teach at the University of Cincinnati when a graduate student from Korea had this comment. “You in India Indianized the western instruments (such as the violin) that you encountered and adapted them to play Indian music. We in Korea (and China and other places) learned western music and made it an integral component of our musical culture”. This is a very insightful comment. While you see formal conservatories of western music and well established symphony orchestras in the Far East, you don’t see (widespread) formal western music education in India. Even Singapore has a highly acclaimed conservatory of music (National University of Singapore) and the NUS choir gives sold out performances each year.
Choral music is a relatively new entrant to the artistic landscape in India. There are church choirs that sing Christian sacred music. The Shillong Chamber Choir founded in 2001 has a repertoire that spans Western Classical, Rock and Popular music. This group won awards at the 6th World Choir Games in China and also went on to win ‘India’s got talent’ in 2010. The Calcutta Youth Choir that was founded by Ruma Guha Thakurta in 1958 and the Madras Youth choir founded by M. B. Srinivasan in 1971 are exemplary choirs that have delighted audiences through their performances on All India Radio and Doordarshan.
I have always been fascinated by the paradigm of music arranged for multiple parts, by the power of the collective whole – something that is not part of the Indian Art music fabric. Of course, I am delightfully overwhelmed by the magic of the Indian system of ragas not seen anywhere else in the world. The desire to see both of these come together resulted in the first ever Indian American choir performance in (based on ragas) in 1994.
We in Cincinnati went on to collaborate with local choirs and expand our horizons. In 2004, we swelled to a size of 80 singers collaborating with 40 singers from local choirs in a performance of ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’, and then later on brought it to Houston where Houston’s own Indian community choir collaborated with the United Nations choir to perform in front of 2800 people. The work we did in Cincinnati OH and Allentown PA and Houston TX has inspired the blossoming of Indian community choirs in Tampa FL, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Minneapolis MN and now Toronto. It is also inspiring other communities around North America to do similar work.
Cincinnati is the birthplace of the Indian American choral singing. Now, the World choir games are coming to Cincinnati – the very first city in the United States to host this global event. The Greater Cincinnati Indian Community choir is competing in the 7th World Choir Games and will be presenting a repertoire based on ragas and ancient Sanskrit text clothed in choral polyphony in the second half of the games.
The Games will grow in size, style and class over the years. It is only a matter of time before choral culture picks up in India and one day, the World Choir Games may be held in Delhi and Indian American choirs would travel to India to compete there as well.

(Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally known visionary musician, composer and music educator based in Cincinnati OH. He is hailed as the pioneer of the Indian American choral movement and has founded community choirs in several cities in North America. He serves on the music advisory committee of the World Choir Games. More info on his work can be seen at www.kanniks.com)

Kanniks Kannikeswaran