The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble ‘Bridging the World with Song’
Ave Maria! The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble-Mumbai with the motto, “Bridging the World with Song”, performed “Ave Maria” – a musical tribute to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour by 16 composers from the 16th to the 21st century, at the Divine Mercy Church- Fatima Retreat House, Jeppu on Sunday, 11 September, with Alfred J D’Souza, as music Conductor.
Mangaluru: For Stop-Gaps Choral ensemble in Mumbai, it has been a tremendous 32 years. Under the leadership of Alfred J D’Souza-the music conductor, the group has traveled the world, taken part in international competitions and even performed before Pope John Paul II. Having performed in Goa, Bengaluru, and Mumbai recently, they came down to Mangaluru to give their best performance to the music lovers here- and their “Ave Maria” – a musical tribute to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour by 16 composers from the 16th to the 21st century performance at the Divine Mercy Church- Fatima Retreat House, Jeppu on Sunday, 11 September, enthralled the house-packed audience- And as the choir took the stage, with Alfred under the spotlight, it was the spirit of joy as Mangalurean Catholics who had just celebrated “Monthi Fest”, and this tribute choir to give thanks to God in this Jubilee Year of Mercy by the Redemptorist Fathers and Brothers, for having been given the world-famous icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help by Pope Pius IX in 1865 with the charge to “Make her known to the whole world” reverberated during the whole concert time- with some music buffs even calling for encores.
Through international exposure, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble endeavour to live up to their motto of ‘Bridging the World with Song”, and the man behind the music is its conductor, Alfred J D’souza. “Choral music is not related to only church songs. I have incorporated movements and dance and various languages to make it more appealing,” said Alfred, while speaking to Team Mangalorean as to how he kept the choir going for so long. His love for music came to the forefront when he sang for AIR broadcast at the age of four. Since then, he combined his two passions – music and social work, along with a career in HR and administration. It is only after retirement that Alfred became a vocal training professional, while still maintaining his connect with the homes for the aged.
Not only the ensemble, but the entire community has immense respect for this man who has dedicated his life to music and helping people. Alfred is hands-on with everything, including designing the costumes for the performances. His hands swishing to the music, he guides his students not only in following the proper highs and lows, but also about life itself. The act of coming together to sing, to harmonize and bolster each other’s strength, to forget about their work, social status, monetary problems for a while and to give to the world something in return – this and more.
Speaking about his Art of mentoring students, Alfred says, “I always lay stress on commitment and putting their whole heart into it,” elaborating on how students have trained under him for years, sometimes since childhood, to become very talented singers. “Talent has to be nurtured and trained for it to reach its potential,” Alfred added. Known as a strict disciplinarian, he places much value on dedication and punctuality, but also on being tolerant and patient. A lot of his students have gone on to become conductors of their own choirs, and Alfred is proud of their successes. Some members are professionals with work commitments and students with exam worries which makes the choir an ever-evolving and fluid group. But most importantly, it welcomes the young ones into its fold. “You have to appeal to the younger generation by singing their type of music,” said Alfred who has almost started a Stop-Gaps junior choir.
The Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy, formed in 1984, is the realization of a dream which began as The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble, under the direction of its conductor, Alfred J. D’Souza. In a short while, the dedication, drive and enthusiasm of its managing committee and members helped it to expand it to a fully registered cultural academy, which encompasses the promotion of music, dance and drama, and has left an indelible mark on the Mumbai music scene. The performances of The Stop-Gaps and its effort at fostering and promoting international music have been lauded by both, press and public. Its repertoire ranges from serious classical to effervescent jazz and pop. Not only has the generation gap been bridged, but religious, economic and social barriers have also been broken down through song.
The group consisted of highly placed professionals such as, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, school and college students, as well as people in service and retired persons, with an age span of 16 to 70 years and over, belonging to different faiths and communities – Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians, from various regions in India. Having established its credentials on the Mumbai music scene with its thematic and wide variety of programmes, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble went on to enthrall audiences in France and Belgium in May, 1995. It was the first-ever Indian choral group to be invited and selected to participate in the Festival International de Chant Choral de Nancy, France, a singular honour further compounded by several encores, standing ovations, critical acclaim and rave reviews, that did India proud. It was also invited to perform in Israel in December, 1998 at the closing celebrations of Israel’s 50th anniversary of Independence, proving again to be a hot favourite in concerts at Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble was again invited to perform at the Festival International de Chant Choral de Nancy, France from in May, 2002.
The highlight, of this trip abroad, however, was singing at the special Papal Audience on 15th May, 2002 at the Vatican, at which the Ensemble was specially requested to sing the world’s most popular song ‘Happy Birthday’ for the Pontiff, who closed 82 years three days later. It was joined by a record 25,000 audience in St. Peter’s Square, the event being televised and was broadcast to the whole world. In July 2004, the Ensemble toured Germany singing in Stuttgart at the invitation of the Mayor of Stuttgart, and winning two Silver Medals in the Popular Music and Scenic Folklore categories at the 3rd Choir Olympics 2004 held in Bremen. They also gave two concerts at the historic Kaiser-Wilheim Gedachtniskirche in Berlin. In July 2006, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble was the first Indian choir ever to sing in China, participating in the 4th World Choir Games – 2006 (Choir Olympics) held in Xiamen, winning one bronze and two silver medals.
When it entered its 25th year, The Stop-Gaps had the privilege to be one of only six choirs from across the globe to be selected after stringent review to participate in the prestigious 7th Choir Competition at Elsenfeld, Miltenberg Germany (10th July – 14th July, 2008) – an immensely edifying way to usher in its Silver Jubilee! It was the first time that an Indian choir has been admitted to this competition, and that too, representing Asia. Since 1989, The Stop-Gaps, in association with The National Centre for the Performing Arts, founded an annual ‘Young Talent’ series of concerts, have proved very successful in providing a concert platform for talented young artistes from all over India, many of whom are today pursing their musical careers in reputed conservatories abroad.
The Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy also presents artistes from abroad, organizes workshops in association with other choirs, conductors and organizations, and has instituted an annual award for a musician who has contributed significantly and consistently to the cause of western music in Mumbai. Last, but not the least, The Stop-Gaps is an organization with a heart, having organized and performed, free of charge, concerts to support several charities such as Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, The Army Central Welfare Fund for victims of the Kargil Conflict, the St Vincent de Paul’s AIDS Hospice, Mobile Creches and the DCW’s Senior Citizens Home.
Fr Eugene D’Silva, C.Ss.R at Fatima Retreat House, who played an important role in organizing this concert in Mangaluru speaking to Team Mangalorean said, ” The Redemptorist Fathers and brothers, while celebrating with hymns of Marian praise and devotion, have surely invited all of us to gaze into the icon (Our Mother of Perpetual Succour) again, look at it, contemplate it, and be drawn into the mystery of God’s love in sending his Son Jesus, born for us, through Mary’s response to the Spirit of God, and Jesus’ mission in leading us back to the love of God. Ave Maria!- the result of such prayer and veneration is always an immense joy; the fruit of being bathed in the glory of the Lord emanating from the Icon. I hope that all those who attended this Choral ensemble will take home memories which will last for a long time.”