It seems that every once in a while in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I discover another amazing musical experience. This one took place at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a lovely jewel of a place on the border with Quebec. Downstairs there’s a library whose stacks are mostly on the Canadian side of the border, but whose reading room with its high windows is on the American; upstairs there’s a theater whose stage is in Canada while most of the audience sits in the United States. It was the perfect setting for a concert by Choromondo, a choir made up of women from both countries, singing songs from over 30 countries. Plaster cupids watched from the ceiling. Border police watched from the outside.
Judy Carpenter, one of their Vermont members, is the mother of Leah, who was the star of a kid-created historical play of many years ago that I helped produce for the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont. The daughter was a delight and a joy, and still fits that description as far as I can tell. And so does her mother.
Judy and I run into each other now and again, and the question “How are you?” almost always elicits excited comments about Choromondo, which I had never heard of and knew nothing about. But here I was, finally, in the audience, marveling at twenty-five or more women of every age and physical description, each dressed in her own many-colored costume, each with her own special relationship to the music.
They rehearse once a week from September to June. The songs become part of them, and while they pay close attention to the style and meaning of each one, both the music and the musicians are changed in the singing. They sang in Hebrew, Croatian, Bulgarian, the tongues of Native Americans and Africans, Spanish, Acadian, Sami and many more. Every introduction to a song was given in both French and English. I wondered how it felt to have all those sounds in your mouth, changing the way your tongue felt and the shape of your breath. I’m sure that they thought about the meaning of every word, even when the word was no word but a sound. All the nuances of love songs, battle songs, dirges and lullabies – our worlds expanded.
Choromondo was started by the Canadian musician/composer Allyna Harris in 1999. The choir has sung benefit concerts for farmers in East Timor, flood victims in Mozambique and orphans in India and Bangladesh. The night we attended benefited the Haskell Library. The women sang for world peace in a place where people have dreamed of more neighborhood between Canada and the United States, and sometimes achieved it. 911 changed all that. The barriers have been raised instead.
In the Haskell Opera House, Canadians and Americans helplessly made border jokes. But in this small, odd theater embracing two countries, on a lovely June evening, no matter what the border police said or did, Choromondo turned us all into world citizens.