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The Glee Club in Ecuador: Music As a Key to Cultural Connections

by Richard Bowen
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It was about nineteen months ago—well, to be absolutely precise, it was Friday afternoon, February 20th, 2009 — that I first sat down with Dan Rogers to discuss the possibility of a Glee Club concert tour to Ecuador. I remember leaving that meeting with a sense of elation, as Dan’s response to my proposal had been one of genuine enthusiasm. “Yes, this would be a great opportunity – let’s do it!”

The Glee Club’s concert tour to Ecuador during the last two weeks of May 2010, was, indeed, a wonderful trip — the memories of which will be fondly recalled by the participants for years to come. We came to know Ecuador as a beautiful, exciting country of multiple contrasts, with vibrant cities, impressive mountains, sweeping vistas, unbelievable roadways—some of which are more liquid than solid—and verdant woodlands. In the cloud-forest village of Mindo, for example, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 5:00 AM on a bleak, wet, dripping morning to test our bird-watching prowess for the next two hours. Although this activity—on its own—was not necessarily high on everyone’s most favorite list, the zip-lining adventure that followed — flying across a 1500-foot gorge, 250 feet above the forest floor — was.

However, the many interesting activities and diversions notwithstanding, the primary purpose of our trip, our reason for going there at all, was to present concerts – to sing for people. It is this aspect of our trip that I wish to focus on. Those of you who have taken groups abroad know that, aside from the tremendous amount of detailed planning that takes place prior to the trip, one of the greatest challenges is that of making real, genuine, and personal contact with the “natives” – with the people who actually live in the areas you are visiting. Such personal interaction is made more difficult when the group travels to a country in which English is not the native language—and where many members of the tour group have limited or no facility in that language. Group size is another critical factor: the larger the group, the more difficult it is to establish personal, people-to-people connections. On the face of it, then, we had several strikes against us in Ecuador. We were traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, we were a group of 36 persons, and fewer than a dozen of us had more than a limited ability to speak or understand Spanish.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that these factors would result in a trip that was unsatisfactory. Certainly the very “foreignness” of the country, the sights, the cities, the food, the travel, the activities were interesting and appealing enough to provide for an enjoyable tour. Nevertheless, Dan Rogers and I were seeking to fashion an experience that was more than just “enjoyable.” Specifically, we were not eager to conduct a trip in which we spent two weeks moving through Ecuador as a self-contained group of American tourists, taking in the sights, taking pictures by the thousand and video by the hour, buying this, buying that, eating strange foods — all the while managing, at best, to skim superficially through the society and culture in our midst.

Happily, such was not the case. In fact, our primary reason for going to Ecuador in the first place – our music – provided the critical key to a number of significant cultural connections during our tour.

Our first concert, on Saturday, May 22, was also our most formal one – at the Eloy Alfaro Military School, Ecuador’s equivalent to West Point. Our concert was one part of multiple Academy events leading up to Ecuador’s independence day celebration, as well as the Academy’s graduation weekend.

I will admit to near-panic that morning, when—before I could even have them warm up onstage before the concert—the commandant disappeared with the entire Glee Club, to give them what turned out to be a 45-minute tour of the grounds. My panic subsided to some degree when I was informed that the start time for our concert was a half hour later than our schedule indicated.

I will be forever grateful to Dan Roger’s genius during our trip planning, when he insisted that the Glee Club add Ecuador’s National Anthem to its repertoire. The Ecuadorians love this anthem, a stirring and martial hymn that is also great fun to sing. The Academy’s auditorium was huge, with seating for more than 1000 – and filled to capacity with 600 cadets, as well as their families and friends. When we opened the concert with Salve, O Patria – the hall resounded as the audience joined us in full force. It was an auspicious opening to a good concert before an enthusiastic crowd.

After the concert, I expected that we would be thanked and sent on our way, but, instead, we were provided with lunch, then escorted outdoors to the sports stadium, where, along with hundreds of soldiers, cadets, officers, dignitaries, and families, we were treated to pomp, pageant, and athletic activities for an hour and a half. I was impressed that, even though the Academy was engaged in its own independence and graduation activities, we were treated as honored guests during our visit.

Our second concert was on Sunday morning, May 23, on the steps of the National Cathedral. The venue was challenging, first because it was an outdoor concert in the appropriately-named Grand Plaza of Quito, and second because our audience would consist of whomever happened to be on the Plaza —and who decided to stay and listen. So, it was very satisfying to watch as the size of our audience increased steadily during our singing. We were even joined by a Glee Club “groupie” for part of our concert. Here and again in Cuenca, where we sang in that city’s central park, our audiences were exceptionally receptive to our singing. In our evening concert at the Pontifical University of Ecuador, we shared the venue with the University Choir – and had the opportunity to join with them as we opened the concert with the National Anthem. On each and every occasion, Salve, Oh Patria was enthusiastically received by our audiences – and, often, with more than a bit of surprise. Our audiences also enjoyed the Glee Club’s spirited performances of Old Wabash. Parenthetically, the guys love this song so much that I almost had a revolt on my hands at the conclusion of the University concert, when they thought they might not get the opportunity to sing it.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of these concerts – for me, at least – was the fact that our audiences did not just “melt away” afterward, but were eager to meet our group, not just to make kind remarks, but to talk with us, to find out a bit more about us, to ask about our tour, about our College, and to wish us well during our visit. It is difficult to describe how this interaction takes place among individuals who do not really share a common language, but, I can assure you that it does.

One of our trips from Quito took us north to the indigenous village of San Clemente. We left most of our luggage at our Quito hotel, packing only what was essential for our two-day excursion. After our bus deposited us at the village’s school house, we walked for another 20 minutes to arrive at a small building that served as a community center. There we met other members of the village, who arrived on foot from their individual homes with their family contributions to a community dinner. Each family also brought dinnerware and flatware for themselves, as well as for several of our group. We feasted on a variety of local dishes, including one of Ecuador’s most popular dishes, Cuy – that is, roast guinea pig.

The area of San Clemente is rural with a capital “R.” After our community picnic we were led on small group treks through the surrounding “wilderness,” in which our guides showed us native trees, shrubs, and other plants used as traditional medicines. Several guys–including Donovan Bisbee, even had the chance to try their hand at plowing – the San Clemente way.

Later, we all gathered again under the stars for an evening of music. The villagers entertained us with a number of instrumental and vocal ensembles, along with some of their traditional dances. Next, we shared our songs with them and finally – oblivious to the light rain falling upon us — both groups came together in an energetic session of folk dancing. Then, we disappeared into the night, two or three guys with each family, to their respective homes and overnight accommodations—some of which were as much as a 30-minute walk.

The following morning, after breakfast with our host families, we met back at our tour bus to say goodbye – and to receive parting gifts from our hosts. The guys’ comments that morning were interesting: “Our host family was great: breakfast was unbelievable: this is the best thing we’ve done on this trip: I can’t wait to come back here again.”

One of our most serendipitous encounters took place in the southern city of Cuenca – an all-day bus trip from Quito on the Pan-American Highway, which runs along the spine of the Andes Mountains through Ecuador. On our first morning in Cuenca, we were just finishing up breakfast in our hotel when we received a request from a teacher at the Pope John Paul II Elementary School, which shared an interior courtyard with the hotel. The teacher had heard that an American choir was staying in the hotel—and she asked if several guys would be willing to visit her class to speak English with her students. Since Glee Clubbers are not particularly bashful, within 10 minutes most of the group had assembled in the school yard – and had we launched into a impromptu concert. Next, we were invited to a class birthday party, which the teacher and students conducted entirely in English. As it turned out, this particular day was an open house at the school, with parents invited to visit and with each classroom engaged in different activities – note all of the animal costumes. We spent almost an hour at the school, singing for them, sharing in their activities, and visiting with students, teachers, and parents.

We also participated in two Mass services in Quito, in the National Cathedral, and in the magnificent Jesuit church in Quito, the Compania. Prior to the service at the Compania, Father Baredo treated us to a tour of the church, including a visit to the rooftop – an opportunity not normally afforded to visitors. We were even permitted to enter the dome – onto the narrow balcony that looks down into the interior of the church. The guys sang beautifully during Mass – and the congregation even remained to hear us sing Franz Biebl’s double choir Ave Maria at the conclusion of the service. Finally, after Mass, Father Baredo escorted us to the private chapel of the Jesuit brotherhood, where he showed us a painting and told its story–the miracle of the weeping Virgin. He also invited us to sing a selection for ourselves in the stunning acoustics of the barrel-vaulted chapel. Not surprisingly, the guys requested the Biebl Ave Maria – one last time on our tour.

Time after time during our Ecuador tour, we were embraced by our audiences, we were treated warmly, we were granted “access” to a deeper level of personal interaction than might be expected under the circumstances. Why was this? Our music was a critical factor. We went to Ecuador to sing for people. That is to say, we were there not just to “take in” the scenery, sights, sounds, and delicacies of the country, but we were there to give something. And – while the “something” we had to give was rather intangible — what we gave was something that no amount of money can purchase—something of our very selves.

Singing is not just personal, it is intimate: the singer in the act of singing reveals a part of his innermost being. The audience in a choral concert are not mere onlookers to an event, but they are part of an exchange that comes to pass. The chorus sends something of itself to the audience and they, in turn, reflect and return their own energy back to the singers. Thus, a choral concert without an audience seems an impossible contradiction.

Audiences recognize the nature of this gift of music. They sense the time, energy, and commitment that is takes to prepare a concert. They become a part of the musical expression that resounds through the space. Thus, by the conclusion of a concert, the performers and the audience members are no longer strangers. The music has already introduced them to each other — and has opened a door to further personal connections.

The Glee Club’s visit to Ecuador was a memorable experience—in truth, a series of overlapping and intertwined experiences. As I reflect upon this trip, I take great comfort in the knowledge that we left something of ourselves behind in Ecuador—and—we have been richly compensated for our investment. We have returned with images and memories, not just of interesting places, sights, and scenery, but—also of the personalities and people who collectively constitute the heart of this remarkable country.

The Wabash Glee Club in Ecuador: Music as a Key to Cultural Connections was presented by Professor Bowen at last summer's Ides of August at Wabash.

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