"If Nai can't go to Serenade, let's bring Serenade to Nai"

Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate us and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice
— Nelson Mandela
Nai's performance will be live-streamed from Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on July 1.

Nai's performance will be live-streamed from Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on July 1.

Last October, the Nai community became excited about an invitation from the United States. Nai was privileged to be invited to participate in the Classical Movements 2018 Serenade! Choral Festival in Washington, D.C.  The Festival will bring together professional, community, and youth choirs in an exuberant celebration of choral music from all over the world. Held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the 8th annual Serenade! Choral Festival will honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of South African revolutionary, politician and philanthropist, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. 

However, our excitement was soon to be overclouded by the imminent implementation of the "travel ban" at the US borders. By January, it became clear that we wouldn't be able to go to Serenade! We proposed to Classical Movements that Nai participate in the festival through live-streaming. Classical Movements liked the idea and decided to feature us at their July 1 Finale concert. Classical Movements also commissioned* composer Hussein Janmohamed to write a new multilingual choral piece specially for Nai to be premiered for this occasion.

To minimize the risk of live-streaming, we agreed to get our performance prerecorded two weeks prior to the actual concert day. In an effort to rally more support for Nai, Ms. Neeta Helms, founder and president of Classical Movements, connected us to another Toronto choir, Countermeasure who will also be at the Serenade! Festival. Countermeasure kindly stepped up to offer Nai help with the video recording. 

This was indeed a wonderful opportunity for Nai to showcase refugee children's achievements to the world, and to send messages of peace, justice and unity internationally. We, adults got excited by the prospect of again being part of this great event, even if just digitally. However, our choristers, mostly children under 12, could not recognize the value of doing a prerecorded video and were disappointed by not being able to travel and meet the other choirs.  


"If Nai can't go to Serenade, why don't we bring Serenade to Nai" suggested Aaron Jensen, Artistic Director of Countermeasure. Aaron further explained that getting to mix and mingle with other choirs at the festival, to exchange experiences and learn from each other were as exhilarating as getting on the stage to sing for thousands of people.  

"We can do a workshop with Nai before the recording", said Aaron with eyes sparked. "Our choir members will interact with Nai children, have fun and share knowledge, just like the participants will do at the Serenade! Festival."     

Before long, Aaron's idea of "Bring Serenade to Nai" was enthusiastically adopted by several prominent artists from Toronto's multicultural arts community. Shireen Abu-Khader, Founder and Director of Jordan's Dozan wa Awtar came to work with the Nai children on the songs that they will present at Serenade! and we look forward working with her again soon.

Upon hearing about Nai's situation, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, Founder and Artistic Director of Toronto's The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, also performing at the Serenade! Festival offered to help too. Brainerd brought his extraordinary expertise in Afrocentric music to help Nai with a South-African traditional song that will be presented at the Festival. Brainerd also invited Nai to sing with Nathaniel Dett Chorale at their Spring Concert on the June 20th.

We are grateful that all three Canadian choirs performing at the Serenade! Festival are collaborating to bring Nai to the Serenade! Festival and the Festival to Nai.

Moreover, Dr. Andrea Emberly, Nai's devoted research partner from York University, invited Nai choristers to participate in the Connecting Culture to Childhood Symposium where Nai will interact with children's choirs from South Africa, Uganda, United States and Australia mid-June. 

We also received support from individual artists in the US.  When internationally renowned Syrian-American rap musician Mona Haydar heard about the cause that Nai is championing, she agreed to support Nai, not only by allowing Hussein to use her poem as the lyrics of his new music, but also by coaching Nai choristers via web-facilitated meetings and coming to Toronto to collaborate with Nai at Nai's Canada Day concert at the Aga Khan Museum.


* For the 2018 Serenade! Choral Festival as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program

Fei Tang