11 October; St Josephs Lower Primary School, Kumbalanghi

Posted: 14 October 2017

No matter to which school I go in Kerala and, no matter the age of the children, two things are always the same; the warm excited welcome I receive from the children and staff and the smiling faces of the children, all eager to sing and learn new songs. 

     St Joseph’s LP School is set within the grounds of St Joseph’s Church in a quiet Ernakulam suburb and caters for about 40 children aged from 4/5 up to 10. I was working with a middle school class of 7/8 year olds who had, so Mary Jacqueline the headmistress told me, been looking forward to my visit for weeks. 

     ‘They are very excited that such a famous singer is coming to their school,’ she told me.
     ‘You must let me know when he is coming,’ I replied. ‘I would like to hear him too.’
     A puzzled look came over her face before breaking into a smile. ‘Ah. You are making a joke,’ she said.
     ‘Almost,’ I replied. 

     The children at St Joseph’s, as I have found everywhere, were amazing. Coulter’s Candy had been such a success I thought it might be worth trying something else in Scots and for that I turned to Matt McGinn’s ‘Coorie Doon’.
     Mary Jacqueline helped me explain that it was a lullaby being sung by a mother to her child while the child’s father was working in a coal mine. The children sang it beautifully and seemed to understand the beautiful poignancy of the verse;

    Your daddy coories doon, wee darling,
    Doon in a three foot seam.
    So you can coorie doon, wee darling,
    Coorie doon and dream.

     ‘Could you please do me a favour?’ Mary Jacqueline asked me.
     ‘If I can.’
     ‘Could you please teach the children ‘Silent Night’. We always sing it a Christmas and next time they sing it, it will remind of you.’
     How could I refuse. And so in a temperature of about 35 degrees centigrade, in India, in the middle of October, we began to learn and sing ‘Silent Night’. One of my most surreal experiences? Oh yes, definitely. One of the most beautiful too. 

10 October; The Vypeen Island Ferry

Posted: 13 October 2017

The ferry from Fort Kochi to Vypeen Island is an eye opener on all sorts of levels. First there is the craft itself. Old, rusty and looking as though it should have found its way to the breaker’s yard long ago or, at the very least, taken out into the Arabian Sea and quietly scuttled. Interestingly the ferry I was on displayed a brass plate which, if it was to be believed, stated that this particular ferry was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolves Shipyards in 1957. As we left port it flashed into my mind that that was where they built the Titanic. 

     The second thing you notice, simply because you have no choice but to become part of it, is the complete disregard for anything remotely concerned with health and safety as foot passengers, motor cyclists and cars all push forward to get on board at the same time. It is even worse when it docks as disembarking foot passengers leap forward to get off even before it has docked properly and tied up. If they had a mind to I suppose they could just as easily jump off mid-crossing as there is nothing between them and the ocean briny except the angle of the on/off ramp which is only slightly higher than deck level. 

     The crossing itself only lasts about ten minutes but it was still a bit unnerving to notice the complete absence of life jackets or any kind of buoyancy aid or any kind of information should an emergency occur and the ferry sank. Needless to say, it didn’t sink and I made it to the island and back without encountering an storms or hurricanes and without any kind of trouble form marauding pirates or denizens of the deep.

     After such a perilous voyage some kind of sustenance was required. In the absence of lime juice or a tot of rum I made my way to the Killian Hotel where I had arranged to meet Dave Rees-Jones and Debbie Aldous from Birmingham who were on their last night in India. I met Dave and Debbie when they came to my concert a few nights before when they told me about the Killian Happy Hour which is actually the Happy Two Hours from four til six. This, I reasoned, was a deliberate marketing ploy on behalf the hotel management; they provide somewhere to go for a cold beer in the heat of the afternoon which somehow seamlessly becomes evening. By this time, of course, you are quite settled and you may as well stay on and have dinner and enjoy the rest of the night during the ‘unhappy’ hours. 
     After a starter of pakora and Kingfisher, the beer, that is, not one of our brightly plumaged feathered friends, I had a delicious fish curry. Kochi is, after all, a fishing port, famous for its Chinese Fishing Nets, so it seemed only right and proper that I sampled the local fruits de mer. Served with rice and chapati it was quite outstanding, especially when washed down with an ice cold Kingfisher Blue. Just the thing for a hungry and thirsty sailor type on shore leave. R. L. Stevenson summed it up perfectly:

    Home is the sailor , home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

     I woke up about four o’clock with my stomach telling me that my fish curry was perhaps not quite as magnificent as I had thought. It felt as though one of the Kingfishers had taken flight inside my large intestine.  I had a fitful couple of hours sleep before I eventually got up and staggered to the loo where I found that things were just as I had feared; my insides seemed to have melted during the night. Time for a couple of charcoal capsules, I think.  

09 October; The St Thomass High School for Girls Collective

Posted: 11 October 2017

Today I returned to St Thomas’s with a plan to get both my groups of girls together and create The St Thomas’s High School Girls Collective. And my girls didn’t let me down.

     My idea was that I would spend some time with each group of girls and then bring them all together in a massed choir and to record and video the result. If nothing else it would be fun.

     I had thought that we would all just get together in the classroom we had been using but Sister Agnes had other ideas. 
      ‘You can use the main auditorium if you like,’ she told me.
     ‘Great,’ I said even though I had no idea what the main auditorium was like. 

     As it turned out it was amazing. We had a huge stage to work with and it was pretty obvious to everyone just how things would be set. Me in the middle with all the girls grouped around me. Val Doonican eat your heart out.

     We had a ball and the girls sang their hearts out. It was hard to believe that just two days before these young girls had never sung anything in English never mind something in a Scottish dialect. We managed to record everything and eventually I hope it will make its way onto these pages. In the meantime, enjoy the photographs.


06 October; Udaya Convent School

Posted: 9 October 2017

I was wakened about two o’clock by the mother and father of all thunderstorms. My homestay is across the street from the Indian Navy’s gunnery school and for a few minutes I thought that perhaps we were in the middle of some night time training exercise. 
     I lay and listened to the magnificent storm raging outside, illuminating my room with unfailing regularity. Between the tympani of thunder claps and lightning flashes I could hear the rain pounding down outside. I lay listening for a while wondering whether or not it would be wise to go up onto the roof to experience the storm first hand when suddenly my alarm clock went off and it was 7.30. I had been lulled to sleep by a thunderstorm.
     Expectantly I rushed out to the balcony, expecting to see torrents of water cascading down the road only to discover that everything was just as it was with no sign of any storm. Maybe I had dreamt the whole thing.
     ‘Did you enjoy the storm last night?’ asked Philip as he served me some Masala eggs.
     ‘I was beginning to think I had imagined it. It all looks the same.’
     ‘That is how it always is. Rain and storms at night. Nothing to see the next day. The ground here is so hard and baked that it just soaks up the water like a sponge.’

     After breakfast I got a taxi back to the Udaya Convent School. I wanted to take a walk and have a look around the neighbourhood so I got there about an hour early. As I am getting out of the taxi I check the temperature, mid morning and its already 31 degrees centigrade. Outside the heat hits you like a sledgehammer and I begin to wonder if a walk is such a good idea.

     In 1957 Kerala’s Legislative Assembly was amongst the first states to return a democratically elected Communist government and as you walk along Udaya Nagar Road it is clear that the Communist Party still has huge support. Hammer and sickle flags are evident everywhere but here, in one of the poorest parts of Kochi, the people you meet are quick to tell you they are tired of the old systems and the need for change. 

     ‘It is either the Communist Party or the Congress Party,’ says Mr Khan, who makes a living recycling cardboard. ‘The Communist Party and the Congress just fight each other ad do nothing for the people. It is time to give the BJP, the Baharatiya Janata Party, a chance.’
     ‘Will that make things better?’ I ask him.
     He shrugs. ‘It can’t be much worse,’ and he waves his arm up and down the street.

     In such poverty and squalor you might think it would be difficult to find any joy anywhere, but the human spirit is made of sterner stuff. In the street people greet me as I walk past. Women, elegant in their colourful saris, standing in groups talking and smiling, nod to me as their beautiful children gather round looking up at me with big, brown laughing eyes

     ‘Hello, sir,’ they say.
     ‘Good morning,’ I reply. 
     ‘You from?’
     ‘From Scotland.’
     ‘Ah Scotland. Very beautiful country.’ 

     In the school room, after singing with the children, I decide that I would like to take a series of portraits and with the help of Esha, a young volunteer with the most amazing voice, we get them lined up.

Having your photograph taken is a serious business and they are all very excited. Eventually we get through them and I have a unique portfolio of  young people who will never see their portrait but they are all, each and every one of them, a valued contributor and I thank them. 


05 October; St Thomas's High School for Girls

Posted: 5 October 2017


The promised heavy rain during the night hasn’t materialised and I wake up to another very heavy, hot day. At breakfast I chat with another guest, a young man named Philip from Dorset, who is travelling the length and breadth of India on his bicycle. He is aiming to get to Goa, about 700 miles away, to join his parents there next week.
     ‘Will you make it?’ I ask him. ‘What about the heat?’
     ‘I should do,’ he replies confidently. ‘It’s really nice when you are pedalling, it’s only when you stop that the heat hits you.’
     I wish him the best of luck and go and wait for my taxi.

     Today I am at St Thomas’s High School for Girls where I will take two classes, one group aged between 7 and 11 and another between 12 and 16. I have to admit that I am a little nervous. Dealing with giggling teenage girls is not something I have any experience of; at least not since I was teenager.

     My first class of about thirty girls is shown into the room by one of the sisters who run the school and I am once struck by how polite the girls are. As they pass me each girl bids me good morning. When everyone is seated one of girls steps forward and presents me with a red rose.
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ she says. ‘Welcome to our school.’
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ echoes her classmates.
     ‘It is National Teachers’ Day today,’ explains Sister Agnes. ‘They are very pleased that you have chosen to spend it here.’

     I am tempted to tell Sister Agnes that if she was a nun in an order in Scotland she would probably be Sister Senga but, excellent as her English is, I didn’t think she would understand. I turned to the rows of smiling faces, holding up my rose like some kind of trophy.
     ‘Thank you all very much. I am very pleased to be here today.’ A statement which brought me far more applause and cheering than I have ever had at a concert. It was all a bit overwhelming, completely unexpected and in its own way very humbling.

     I am sure that when Robert Coltart wrote the original ‘Coulter’s Candy’ in the 1800’s he had no idea that one day it would be sung in schools in India in the 21st century. But that has proved to be the case and proves to be just as popular with children here as it ever was with children in Scotland. It is just one of those songs, the perfect mix of words and music, that make it easy to learn and easy and lovely to sing. If ever I release a song in India, this is the one it will be. 

     Now bearing in mind that these are young girls whose first language in not English and who have never heard the tune before, the response to the song was amazing. Not just in the very quick way they learnt the song but the beautiful way in which they sang it. Sweetly, tunefully and their lovely Keralan accents giving something to the lyrics which you had to hear to fully appreciate. 
     During the hour we had, we sang our way through a few more songs and each time they sang along as if they had known them all of their young lives. As we neared the end of the class, without any kind of introduction, and as a sort of test, I began to play ‘Coulter’s Candy’ and immediately they sang along. These are the moments you treasure. These are the times when you think that maybe you have done something right.

     After a break, Masala tea served by a nun in a white habit, and that’s not something that happens to you every Diwali, I spent some time with the older of the two groups. And they weren’t at all giggly. 

     I was curious to see if ‘Coulter’s Candy’ would work with teenagers. Would they like the pure simplicity of the tune? Would they be embarrassed by the thought of sitting on their Ama’s knee? Would they like to sing at all? As it turned out all of those fears were completely unfounded, so much so that I thought we might try something a little more ambitious.

     Anna Tabbush’s ‘The Tree Song’ has always been a great favourite of mine ever since I heard it sung by Pandorra’s Handbag at a Burns Supper in Yorkshire. No, really. Anyway I put some words on the blackboard, sang it through and then took the girls through the song, line by line. The result was truly astonishing. Sure the timing wasn’t exactly as it should be and the melody wasn’t quite there but these girls had the song. 

     Sometimes, something will happen that stops you in your tracks. You will experience something you know will never happen again in quite the same way. And that is what happened when I decided to teach the class my own ‘Sail On’.
     I can’t begin to describe how I felt to hear these not-at-all giggly teenage girls singing one of my songs. For a few minutes I was at once proud and emotional and totally at one with a group I had only just met an hour before. That’s what music can do.

     Later I told Sister Agnes that I was very impressed by the singing of both groups.
     ‘It’s because they have a hunger for it,’ she told me. ‘They have very little exposure to the arts and especially to the arts from Western cultures. They are hungry for more.’
     If these children are hungry then I am so pleased and feel so privileged to have been able to help feed that hunger.


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