THE first time I heard the song, We are the World, sung live was while sitting in Churchill Park, Lautoka next to my mother. I'm not sure of the year but it was not long after the song became a world-wide hit in 1985. I knew the song well but it was the group that sang it that got my attention. The choir was made up of schoolchildren of different ethnicities and cultural groups and from different schools.
Years later, I was to hear the same song, being sung again but in a different city. However the context was the same as hundreds of young men and women from different backgrounds and different secondary schools sang in the old national gymnasium, now the FMF National Gymnasium. So was the effect; perhaps a little more powerful.
Next fortnight, the FMF National Gymnasium will once again be filled with the raw power of the human voice. Well about 500 voices. For two nights young people of Suva who have been empowered musically will raise their voices, and, as one voice, share that power with those fortunate to be there to witness that musical experience that is "Mana Choral Fest-2012: Voice Of Change".
Originally the Fiji Secondary Schools Music Festival, which was revived in 2007 and 2008 by Pasifika Voices after a 15-year hiatus, Mana is another musical child of composer Igelese Ete.
In the midst of his "artistic labour pains", Ete, a "PK" ("pastor's kid") who gave up a place in his high school senior rugby team to take up choral singing, shared with me his belief, based on his own experiences, that music "can be tool to inspire, empower, uplift and also give a strong sense of self-identity".
In fact the change of name from the usual Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival, to "Mana: Voice Of Change" is part of Ete's vision for the youth of Fiji and the Pacific.
"Being current and relevant to our youth is crucial, so I thought it would be good to rebrand it something that would resonate with the youth. I suggested it to the members of Pasifika Voices if they could find a name they would all be proud of, to give them a sense of 'self-identity' making it unique to Fiji and also the Pacific."
"Mana", which is commonly understood across the Pacific to mean great authority, presence, prestige or power, is more than a catchy title for a music show. Throughout the years, the Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival has been a blessing and platform to empower audiences and unite schools. According to Ete, the students/performers have "mana" and have used this gift to enrich the lives of generations of audiences, and the blessing is in the song and the symbol of unity.
"The late Mrs Ethel Naidu, who was a renowned convener of the Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival, once said that, 'The purpose was to create a friendly atmosphere among students and the spirit of working together', The Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival has always been about releasing this power or mana via the arts and helping students realise the mana that they posess, and the responsibility of exercising this right and share this blessing with others. The Music Festival is a celebration of Mana and a time of empowerment and the deep spiritual realisation of purposeful engagement with whole audiences."
Ete, paid tribute to Mrs Naidu, who passed away last September, leaving a lasting legacy which has inspired him.
"We lost a wonderful inspirational individual in Ethel, and she was on like mind — and I remember bringing her in to the 2008 Secondary Schools Music Festival and talking about unity, and all the wonderful schools that were involved — and for its was also about music as a means to inspire and unite the community."
This year's theme for the Choral Festival is "Voices of Change". I asked Ete how he saw music as a force for social change — not just self expression but to give positive messages and articulate hope.
"Well music in particular 'singing' — has the ability to communicate a message in a non-confrontational, powerful way, something that is unique to this medium and has a huge influence on a spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual organic way. And sometimes you can try and try and convince the masses through other means but when we communicate by voice through words and melody something unique happens. And it really does explain why singing is such an integral part of community and also the church."
Set against the backdrop of the recent inter-school violence, the process of forming the choir has taken on a special meaning for Ete, Pasifika Voices and the young choir members.
"This year we're commenting on creating unity between schools and individuals by getting to know each other, respecting each other's differences and views, whether they have a different voice part — say you're a soprano — we always have mixing session where they get to stand next someone they've never met. So even within the rehearsal process we are constantly conveying the positive messages of unity in our diversity. The songs we'll be singing about talks a lot about empowerment and achieving your dreams, believing in who you are — but also we'll be singing about acceptance of our differences — racially, denominations, culturally, all the things that may divide us."
"In regards to rivalry, I think giving them activities that highlight team dynamics, working together towards a common goal and making sounds that inspire them â€¦goes a long way in building those positive bonds amongst them."
An added bonus for the partipants of "Mana" has been the inclusion of brothers Nainz and Viiz Tupai who are an award winning R&B/Soul duo from New Zealand, Adeaze. The Fijian singers have been watching music clips of the community driven duo and are excited about joining forces with them.
"They're really humble guys who want to serve," said Ete.
"They were both part of a choir I help set up in Auckland - called the Auckland Pacific Gospel Choir so they're a prime example of young Pacific Islanders whose parents migrated to NZ in search of a better life, but had to struggle hard for their kids. Their mum, who is disabled, always encouraged them to busk for their food. They grew up in church keeping the faith."
Adeaze are now at the cutting edge of the music industry, so much so that American singer, Maria Carey even sampled one of their songs on her latest album.
They are such great role models for the youth, and will also hold a free music workshop for Church Youth Groups in Suva on Sunday, November 11.
The MANA Choral Fest will be held at the FMF National Gymnasium on Friday 9th and Saturday 10th November. It promises to be something special.
"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity."
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea.