Growing from eight singers to over 80, the Capital City Minstrels, into the 19th year now, has crafted itself as a prominent choir music group of Delhi, writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

It is a windswept winter evening, getting to 7 p.m. In ones and twos, they are shuffling in, to The Hungarian Cultural Centre on New Delhi’s Feroze Shah Road. There is an apparent touch of regularity in the way a Centre worker is seen setting the table at the back verandah for them, placing canisters of tea and coffee on it. Some cookies too.

But before you know it, there is an impressive spread on the table, of snacks, sandwiches and cakes. All brought by the assembling lot, opening their boxes of goodies to cheers and laughter. It leaves you wondering though: is it a bunch of singers arriving at the spot after a day’s work to practice for their next performance or is it a joyous potluck party building up?

“Well, it is always like this, one grand tea party before we start practicing music,” says Annie Sinha, secretary of the group that now has over 80 members — the Capital City Minstrels (CCM). “Whoever can, brings something. Let me tell you, we do a lot of eating here besides singing,” adds CCM’s vice president Gita Bhatia cheerfully.

For those who are not in the know of the choir music scene in Delhi, Capital City Minstrels is a prominent name. Though most of its members are amateurs and can’t read music, they have to their credit over 50 concerts performed in various parts of the country and Europe by now, simply based on hours of rehearsals. This February, CCM has been invited to take part in the 11th edition of the prestigious Monte International Music Festival that is to take place in Goa from February 1 to 3. The choir conductor Carolin Remy has put together about 30 members for the performance. So here they are, about to begin their rehearsal session, to make their recital on February 2 a hit.

Snatching some time out of the tea session to warm up for the rehearsals, Gita shares with us her journey at the CCM. She is one of the oldest members of the group, has been with it since 1994, “from the time when Zohra Shaw started it with just eight singers, all women.”

“Music needs men’s voice too,” she says, the reason why Shaw decided to open the choir group to men. Shaw left for the U.S. “to be with her children some years ago” but left a legacy which now has members from diverse fields, “students to housewives, doctors and architects to bureaucrats, embassy professionals to corporate employees.”

The profile of the members is indeed as interesting as it is diverse. There is Tapas Bharadwaj, a 10th class student from DPS, R.K. Puram. Tapas, a visually impaired boy, has been with CCM for over three years now, singing as a bass voice. “I have always loved singing. After joining the group, I think my voice quality has improved, I have learnt to sing in many languages as the music the group takes up traverses different cultures and languages. I have also learnt how to present myself on stage,” he says.

Then there is Reuben Israel, a publisher by profession and a bass singer at CCM in free time. “I have been with the group since 2007. I am also a part of Delhi Chamber Choir. Singing together, with so many people, is such a pleasure,” he says. Reuben’s job here is also to cut practice CDs for members. “Most of us do not know how to read music. So having a learning CD helps. Say, there are four voices simultaneously in a piece. If you are a soprano, with the help of a computer software, I highlight the lines of the soprano. Likewise, an alto or a tenor gets their lines a little louder than the rest of them. This helps them to remember and practice their lines,” he explains.

Practicing a line on the piano in the Centre’s auditorium is Chris Sims. He is from England, working in an education software company in Okhla Industrial Area for a year now. “I have been doing choral singing back home for years. I got interested in CCM as it helps me keep in touch with choir music besides being a good way to know people locally and get a break from work,” he says.

Former Delhi Police chief and till recently the President of CCM, Maxwell Pereira, too joined the group to continue with his hobby. “I have been with CCM since 1998. Though I was invited to join it even earlier, I could finally do it when I was posted outside Delhi (to Pondicherry). I could sing with the group then only temporarily, during visits to Delhi. I continued as a regular member when I got posted back to Delhi,” he says. Pereira will “miss the Goa concert” as it has clashed with a visit to the U.S.

The group has many active members who belong to various embassies. Many of its conductors are people brought to Delhi on embassy postings. “Besides Shaw, we have had great conductors like Nauzer Daruwalla, a nephew of Zubin Mehta. We also had foreign nationals like Hur Chul Yung (a Korean), who was also a great tenor. Last year, we were left high and dry when the conductor suddenly had to leave for the U.S. But we are lucky to have got this German lady, Carolin Remy, who is a trained conductor,” says Gita.

Carolin, who teaches music at the German School here, calls CCM members “a great mixture of those who do not have a lot of experience with music and others who are well-experienced.”

“But each one loves music, which is how it works.” There is a lot of work, she says, “voice training, etc. but at the end everybody is enjoying to be on stage. The audience feels our love for music.”

Meanwhile, the tea session is up and it is time for serious practice. Annie is seen herding the lot into the auditorium, “Quick, quick,” asking everyone to take their seats, take out their sheets of lyrics. In Goa, they will be singing an interesting mix of compositions — gospel music to traditional African pieces to Beethovan’s “Joyful joyful” and more. As a warm up, they croon lines from the popular Christmas carol “Joy to the World”.

When we leave them, the hall is resounding with the words, “Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy….”

Joy indeed.

Choir components

Anyone interested in joining the Capital City Minstrels has to undergo an audition test for voice quality. “Though 100 per cent attendance is what is asked for during the rehearsals, at least 75 per cent attendance is important,” says Gita Bhatia of CCM.

The choir group doesn’t have any particular uniform. “We try and choose colours which people usually have. Say a blue or a white sari and kurta which most members have,” says Bhatia.

The group members say they are grateful to the Hungarian Cultural Centre for regularly offering space to them for their rehearsals.