Mumbai-based choral ensemble started after the ’72 Chennai floods, choir conductor Alfred D’Souza recounts
It was the winter of 1972 in Chennai. A young man was living on the banks of Adyar river when it overflowed. A flood ensued which led to destruction and homelessness. This young man, almost 50 years ago, brought an entire community together to collect aid for the affected. And it is this spirit of charity and Christmas which still courses through the veins of Alfred J D’Souza, a master conductor of the Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy which performed to a packed audience at Tata Theatre NCPA on December 11 and 12. This highly-respected man, 63-year-old Alfred gave us an insight of what Stop-Gaps really stands for.
Beginning of the Choral Ensemble
What started in 1972 was not a one-time effort. When Alfred, pursing his BSc in Zoology, brought together the entire Christian community to sing carols for charity, he started something long-term. That year saw people from various social and economic backgrounds – from lawyers to school dropouts – join the choir. “It was an effort which broke many barriers, bridging many gaps, hence the name ‘Stop-Gaps’,” said Alfred.
Alfred left the city, but kept returning for the Christmas choir every year-end. However, after over a decade, enthusiasm started waning. So he began the same effort in Mumbai in 1984 with choirs from Bandra and Wadala. For Stop-Gaps choral ensemble in Mumbai, it has been a tremendous 32 years. Under his leadership, the group has travelled the world, taken part in international competitions and even performed before Pope John Paul II.
Most importantly, this master comes with a dog – an energetic one-year-old Fritters who is a part of every concert, on stage. An animal lover, Alfred and his choir have taken much initiative for strays too.
The man behind the music
“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 talking about 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 harmonise 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.
Art of mentoring students
“I always lay stress on commitment and putting their whole heart into it,” said Alfred, 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 is busy preparing for the next performance on December 19 at the Bandra Gymkhana. And as the choir takes the stage, with Alfred under the spotlight, it is the spirit of joy and a message of charity which will reverberate, ushering in Christmas.
This article was published here by DNA on Dec 14, 2015