Signal Hill: The people’s voice

Tobago's Signal Hill Alumni Choir has travelled the world to perform. Jonathan Ali listened to their siren song

John Arnold, the choir’s artistic director. Photograph courtesy John Arnold/Oswin BrowneThe Signal Hill choir on the opening night of their 25th anniversary performance at Naparima Bowl, Trinidad. Photograph courtesy Signal Hill Choir/Anthony Harris

On a damp, drizzly evening in Port of Spain, the Signal Hill Alumni Choir is in full flight. They’re performing at an open-air concert at the Queen’s Park Savannah, and apart from the poor weather, the audience of hundreds has also had to endure a 45-minute delay. Worse still, the nondescript opening act has done nothing to lift the evening’s soggy vibe. Since this is the start of Emancipation celebrations, the wet crowd is wearing elaborate African dress.

Yet all this is now forgotten. After a selection of powerful West African songs and some sprightly Tobago folk tunes, Signal Hill launches into the final number, “Oil and Music”. The singers break down the soca hit by David Rudder and Machel Montano and rebuild it with dynamic multi-part harmonies. Wedded to the choir’s trademark choreography, the performance is dazzling.

For the choir and its artistic director John Arnold, after 25 years of doing what they do, it’s all in a night’s work. “The audience seemed to enjoy it,” is his modest assessment when we meet backstage afterwards. A well-fleshed man with a commanding presence, Arnold has been in charge of the Signal Hill Alumni Choir – SHAC to its friends – since its inception in 1984.
Growing out of the folk choir at Tobago’s Signal Hill Senior Comprehensive School (which counts football star Dwight Yorke as an alumnus), SHAC dominated the folk-music class of the national Music Festival throughout the 1980s. The choir retired from competition in the early 1990s, by which time it had evolved from merely a local-folk chorale to a choir that performs gospel, African folk and world music, as well as reggae and calypso. Numbers by the Mighty Shadow and David Rudder are part of its impressive repertoire.

The choir has continued to expand its range of genres. For the first time this year SHAC performed Indian music, including a song by chutney king Rooplal Girdharrie in their jubilee shows. “It was awesome, it rocked the house,” enthuses Arnold. However, unlike Trinidad and Tobago’s other leading choirs, such as the Lydian Singers and the Marionettes Chorale, SHAC has not branched out into performing classical music. Says Arnold, “We stay in the folk voice, the people’s voice.”

Whatever style SHAC performs in, one thing that remains constant is the choir’s mesmerizing dance moves, the “choral choreography” for which it is known.

“The only way you can do folk is you’ve got to show it, not just sing it. You’ve got to act it out,” explains Arnold. “When we realised it worked, we adapted it to every type of music. That’s how we ended up doing gospel, African folk, world music. It’s a nice way of expanding our diversity.”
It’s also a nice way to make one’s name, not only locally, but worldwide too. SHAC has toured throughout the Americas and Europe, and performed for Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Queen Elizabeth II, among others. The choir has also competed internationally, and in 2001 placed second in the folk category at the Wales International Choral Festival. It’s been honoured with one of Trinidad and Tobago’s national awards, the Hummingbird Medal Gold, and it has a significant discography, including a two-CD collection of its best work.

After 25 years, John Arnold can declare that what keeps SHAC alive is “passion and leadership.” He characterises his leadership style as “democracy mixed with a bit of dictatorship,” noting, “People like to be led.” But it’s passion that matters most in the choir’s continued success – passion for music, passion for the island of Tobago, passion for leaving a legacy.

“Throughout the years we’ve changed membership – people have migrated, moved to Trinidad, gone on to other things – but we’ve been able to keep a core set of people who love what we do and love to perform,” says Arnold. He’s hoping one of these people might step forward to take SHAC into the future. “If you infuse people with passion, and you as the leader have it, they also get it. It becomes a viral kind of thing, and that’s what leads to success. That, along with hard work. Real hard work.”