MARCH 2018. In a dark room in Prague, at the International Choral Festival, the Mount Sion Choir are listening to a choir from Japan, and they’re starting to have second thoughts. They’re hearing harmonies, melodies and high notes that seem physically impossible.
“We’ve made a huge mistake,” Mount Sion student and choir member Jireh Pembele remembers thinking.
A few minutes later, they performed anyway and – without exaggeration – completely changed the course of their lives.
Three years earlier
Mount Sion CBS is a school and has produced many hurling and academic greats down the years. However, it has never been known for its musical triumphs – in fact, it doesn’t have a music or arts programme at all. In 2015, teacher Colette Kearney was listening to the boys singing between lessons and rapping in the corner of the yard and surmised that it was probably a good idea to set up a choir.
“It was more of an outlet for them really,” Colette explained. “They loved singing and in a sports orientated school, there weren’t many options for them to explore their interest in singing. At the beginning though it was as much about creating a support group for them as being a fully-fledged choir.”
Collette admitted that it was never going to be a ‘proper’ choir because none of them could read music or had the qualifications to be music teachers. They had enthusiasm and buckets of passion, and sometimes that’s enough.
“The first song we kept on singing was Down to the River because it was the only song we were able to sing,” Odudu Johnson remembers.
The choir kicked off with approximately 40 members, which might have had something to do with the fact that they practiced during less appealing classes and study times. As it became more structured, the boys that had the passion for it stayed, while the rest fell by the wayside.
“Nobody took it seriously in the beginning, we were just having craic with the lads,” Shaun McCarthy Donnelly said.
For months, the choir performed at ‘in-house’ events such as school Masses and ceremonies, and never moved too far out of their comfort zones. Then, in 2017, Collette decided to bring them to the Choir Festival in Prague, not to actually take part, but to watch, listen, and maybe sing an odd bar or two.
“We didn’t compete, but we sang in a gathering that took place at the end of the event,” Jack Byrne recalled. “It’s fair to say that we stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Alongside Colette, Ashleigh Keane and Vicky Sheridan were two teachers that also took an active role in the choir, from a management and singing point of view.
“They didn’t have any confidence in themselves but definitely stole the show that night,” Vicky remembers. The sight of these rugged-edged kids, rapping and making some damn-fine music was inspiring to all, and like something out of Sister Act.
In 2018 they returned to Prague, but this time they entered the competition, in the Gospel and Pop categories.
“We knew we weren’t good enough but Sean Murphy really bet it into us that we were a legitimate choir and had every right to stand up with the rest of them,” Odudu said.
Sean, a guitarist and one of the lead singers of the choir did his leaving cert this year, thus bid his farewell to the choir.
“He inspired us, and as we walked on to the stage, I looked around and could see that everyone was taking this seriously…everyone had belief,” Odudu added.
The choir’s performance in Prague, not only took the city by storm, but also broke the internet – at least in Waterford anyway. Everyone got caught up in the story of this choir that couldn’t sing, at least classically anyway, but in every other way, were brilliant. They rapped, they sang in different styles and they walked away with a silver medal. Prague didn’t know what hit it.
Christopher Halligan, one of the founding members of the choir, said that his dad, like most other Irish fathers, wouldn’t be too forthcoming with his pride. He probably wasn’t that interested in choirs either. However, when the choir came back from Prague, they were suddenly flavor of the month, appearing on local and national radio and popping up at events all over Waterford, including as special guests at a wedding.
“I’ve walked past my dad’s bedroom many times and heard him listening to the videos of us performing…I think that meant he was proud,” Christopher said.
As he should be. They were now hot property. Irish singing legend Don Mescall asked them to perform at his Waterford concert, and then asked if they’d come to his Limerick gig as well (happening at the end of the month). They performed an open air gig in Waterford – all on their lonesome – and then Mr Mescall asked them to join him in London at the end of September, to record a special charity single. Not bad for a choir without any training.
Today, the choir is bigger than it’s ever been and one member in particular – Scott Tobin – sums up why they’re so unique.
“When the choir started auditions, I thought to myself, why not give it a try?” he said. “And before I knew it, I was in, singing on a stage in Prague and about to go to London to record a song in a real studio.”
Quite an achievement for a kid with two hearing aids.