On the eve of the millenium the Boite launched The Melbourne Millennium Chorus, with the aim of bringing together singers and musicians from around the world to welcome the new millenium. This celebration of cultural diversity was so successful that it is now an annual event. For 2015 the focus is on Africa and Artistic Director Lamine Sonko, originally from Senegal but now a resident of Melbourne, has brought together special guests from across Africa to perform with a choir of over 350 voices directed by Andrea Khoza. Jan Chandler recently spoke with Lamine Sonko for Australian Stage.
Lamine has never really known a time without music and dance. He grew up in Senegal, West Africa, the son of an artistic family, a family of Griots whose role is to pass on music and stories to future generations. His father directed the Senegalese National Drum and Dance Company for 33 years and Lamine remembers his childhood home being filled with people from the company. African hand drums were his first love; his older siblings used to ask him to carry their drums for them when they played at community events. Later he extended his interest to many other instruments including the guitar and the Kora (African Harp).
It was love that brought Lamine to Melbourne some ten years ago, and it was his profound knowledge of his culture that helped him survive here, despite many difficult moments, 'struggling with English and trying to get things right'. He studied a Diploma in Community Cultural Development at RMIT and the Victorian College of the Arts and on finishing created The Knowing Project. The Project develops cultural programs aimed at promoting 'freedom, action, resilience and celebration in schools, businesses, the community and the wider world'. The programs are developed using music, dance, storytelling and song with the aim of 'bringing people together, unlocking hidden potential and building cultural awareness and understanding'.
Lamine has always wanted to take his cultural work to another level. After performing as a guest, along with Archie Roach and Shane Howard, in last year's Millenium Chorus he was asked if he might be interested in being the Artistic Director of a concert focused on African music. The prospect of having access to 350 people who would be learning ancient songs from different parts of Africa, as well as being able to bring together a range of African artists to share their culture was 'an amazing idea' and totally irresistible.
Sourcing the African music and re-writing it into a western form, whilst retaining the true meaning of the works, was a major challenge. Fortunately the Choir Director Andrea Khoza is an expert in translating African songs, with the ability to truly capture the melody and teach it to others. During rehearsals Lamine would watch as the choir sat and listened to the story of the song; as they came to more fully appreciate the meaning of what they were singing he could hear how their singing changed. 'There is something special about so many voices singing together and expressing themselves vocally'. There is also something very beautiful about hearing them sing in your own language; 'it makes you feel welcome'. Lamine's hope is that One Africa will share this feeling of welcome with the audience and show them how real Africa is within everybody.
The Choir, though, is only one part of the performance. Lamine has gathered together an impressive list of local and overseas artists. Melbourne based artists include singer Ajak Kwai, performer and storyteller Tariro Mavondo and the Burundi Drummers Group of Victoria. They will be joined by the musical director of the Soweto Gospel Choir, Jimmy Mulovedzi and, on their first visit to Australia, Lamine's parents Bouly Sonko and Oumy Sene Sonko. A house band has learned all the songs with the choir and the guest artists will perform between the songs.
'The idea is to bring Africa together using water as the underlying force that connects all of us, African and non African.' Music, song and dance will take the audience on a journey to different parts of Africa, allowing them to experience the different colours and rhythms of African culture, 'to see the richness of what Africa has in the way of music and how open they [Africans] are to sharing with the world'.
The 2015 Boite Millennium Chorus
Venue: Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
Date: Sunday 30 August at 2.30 pm
Top right – Lamine Sonko. Photo – R King
Bottom right – The Boîte Millennium Chorus