Spizzwinks(?) bring Burmese choir on tour

When the Yale a cappella group Spizzwinks(?) journeyed across Asia on its 2007 summer tour, a trip to the nonprofit school Gitameit Music Center in Rangoon, Burma, struck a memorable chord. Visiting Burma’s only community music school, the students were moved by the performances of the Gitameit choir, Spizzwinks(?) member Nathaniel Granor ’09 recalled.

After two years of planning and more than $37,000 in fundraising, the Yale Spizzwinks(?), led by Granor, have finally helped bring Gitameit students to the United States for a three-week tour, which marks the first time a Burmese choir has visited the United States. The choir arrived in San Francisco on April 19, and then flew to the East Coast to perform in New York City, Greenwich, Conn., and New Haven. In their concert tonight, the choir and the Spizzwinks(?) will be joined by New Haven singers and members of the Yale Glee Club.

Spending several days with Gitameit in 2007, Granor and other members of the Spizzwinks(?) began to toy with the idea of bringing the choir to Yale. When one Gitameit student heard the idea, Granor said that student could not take it seriously.

“One of the students looked up at me with an almost wry look on his face and said ‘That’s ridiculous: One, I could never go to the United States, and, two, I have no idea what’s there,’ ” Granor said.

Given that the Burmese government rejects foreign influence, the students’ sentiments were not surprising. Burma is one of Asia’s poorest countries and has been ruled by military junta since 1962.

Recently, it has become difficult to travel in and out of the country as a result of the political and social unrest there. In August and September of 2007, students and Buddhist monks led tens of thousands of people into the streets of Rangoon to protest the ruling regime; beatings and mass arrests ended the demonstrations.

Samuel Bolen ’10, who was on the 2007 tour, said though he has traveled across South America and Asia with the a cappella group, nothing has compared to Burma.

“Burma is just so different,” Bolen said. “I’ve never seen a place that is that poor.”

In the midst of crushing poverty and government censorship, the Gitameit Music Center allows students a place to connect to the larger world, according to the school’s mission statement. Though political discord has stunted the growth of secular music, the school teaches traditional Burmese folk music as well as music in the Western tradition, from classical to jazz to pop, according to its Web site. The school also hosts musicians from other countries, and its choir recently travelled to Japan.

Still, the students know little about American culture, Granor said, which inspired the Spizzwinks(?) to bring the choir to the United States. Over the past two years, the Spizzwinks(?) have recruited the financial support of many organizations, including the Yale Spizzwinks Alumni Association, Association of Yale Alumni, the Yale Glee Club, the Yale Council of Southeast Asian Studies, the Yale Chaplain’s Office, Saybrook College and the Yale Institute for Sacred Music.

Now, the group has finally descended upon Yale’s campus in preparation for their concert tonight, and members of the Spizzwinks(?) alumni are beginning to reflect on the significance of the a cappella group’s cultural exchange project.

Rich Johnson ’81, the moderator of the board of the Yale Spizzwinks Alumni Association, said the efforts of the Spizzwinks(?) marks a cultural shift in Yale a cappella, illustrating the new emphasis on service rather than “fun” during their international music tours. Johnson said that when he was a student, tours abroad emphasized enjoyment but paled in comparison to the Spizzwinks(?)’ experience in Burma.

“When it’s all about you and indulging yourself, it’s not the same kind of profound experience,” he said.

The Spizzwinks(?) and the Gitameit choir will perform at the Trinity Lutheran Church tonight at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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