A voice from India

Mumbai-born Salome Rebello wields the baton at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance’s External Studies Institute choir.

Mumbai-born Salome Rebello wields the baton at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance’s External Studies Institute choir (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mumbai-born Salome Rebello wields the baton at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance’s External Studies Institute choir
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You might not expect to meet too many Western classical choirmasters from India, but we have one right here at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The 27-year-old Salome Rebello hails from Mumbai and made aliya six years ago.
“I was one of the last olim to attend the absorption center in Baka [Ulpan Etzion],” she recalls. “I was also the youngest there at the time. Everyone was very nice to me.”
Rebello clearly lost little time in settling in to her new country. Her Hebrew is fluent and, in between studying for a master’s degree, she wields the baton at the sessions of the academy’s External Studies Institute choir, which performs a wide variety of music, from popular Israeli music to all kinds of classical compositions and much between.
The young conductor says she grew up in an eclectic cultural milieu.
“My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian, and I was brought up Jewish,” she says.
But formal Jewish education was not an option in her neck of the woods.
“I went to a convent school, and the other kids were all sorts – Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, you name it. I grew up in a very cosmopolitan environment,” she says.
However, the sociocultural spread did not impact on Rebello’s early musical education.
“My parents mostly listened to Western music,” she says. “Not classical, it was mostly classic rock and a lot of jazz, so I grew up listening to music like that.”
Even so, Rebello got an early start on an instrument that features strongly in classical music.
“I started playing the piano when I was five,” she says.
“Basically, just because there was one in the house,” she adds with a laugh. “It was my grandmother’s, and she bought it from an English lady who left the country.
Classical music came to India with the British. My mother thought that I might like the piano – little did she know.”
It was, indeed, the start of a musical path that has just grown and grown.
“I learned piano privately,” says Rebello. “In India we don’t have music education at school. It’s not part of the syllabus, not Indian music or Western music.”
Considering how classical Indian music is revered in the subcontinent, that sounds surprising.
“Anyone who becomes a musician in India does that outside school hours,” Rebello explains. “That’s how I did it, too. People [in India] look for ways to make money. They study law and they study medicine. So I really respect my parents for not making a fuss when I told them I was going to study music.”
Rebello had been able to satisfy at least some of her musical yearnings as a member of a local choir run by a woman whom Rebello remembers with great affection.
“She never took a single rupee for her work with the choir. She just did it for the love of it,” she marvels.
There may not have been any formal school level musical education around, but there was some prestigious extracurricular help at hand, and Rebello took full advantage of it. After graduating from high school, she began working toward a sociology degree at the University of Mumbai. It was while she was there that she became connected with the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (MMMF), established by internationally acclaimed conductor Zubin Mehta in memory of his father, who had a long and illustrious global career as a conductor.
The MMMF was founded in 1995 as an NPO with the express intent of “Western classical music through the presentation of high-quality concerts and music education for children.”
Rebello did her bit to help achieve that goal. At 18 she began imparting technical skills and her love of music to local youngsters.
“I began a children’s choir. We started with 20 kids, aged five to 13, and four years later we had 75,” she notes proudly.
Not bad going for someone not much older than her choristers and with no formal training in the field. Was she at all concerned that she might not pass muster? “When you’re 18 you’re not afraid of anything,” she exclaims with a laugh, adding that she came to the job with some important hands-on experience of her own.
“Don’t forget, I’d been in choirs, and I knew what it was all about. I’d been through the whole rigmarole. Choirs were like home for me,” she says.
HER TEACHING career took off in leaps and bounds, and she took to it like the proverbial duck to water.
“I also started giving private lessons to kids, and then I went into early music education – here they call it pre-instrument – for kids aged three to six. It is a lot about the kids finding their singing voice, and there’s a lot of movement, listening to music and learning about composers and singing a lot of songs. I loved it. It was a program called Discover Music, which I headed,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rebello got on with the business of completing her sociology degree, and then came over here for a visit.
“I had family here, near Haifa, whom I’d never met,” she says. “There were my grandparents’ siblings who made aliya 40 years ago. It was like a roots trip, only the other way round.”
While she was here, she checked out the music academies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and decided she would apply to the latter.
“Tel Aviv is too much like Mumbai, and I wanted a change. I fell in love with Jerusalem,” she says.
A year later she made aliya, specifically to further her musical training.
“I didn’t come here for Zionistic reasons, but I am so happy I made aliya. I love this place,” she smiles.
Rebello’s choral pursuits here took a while to materialize.
“I came here to do a degree in piano performance, but in my third year I did an external course in the basics of choral conducting, given by [US-born conductor] Stanley Sperber,” she recounts.
She also sang in Sperber’s choir, and one day he summarily informed Rebello that he had set her an entrance exam to join his choral conducting department. And that was that.
“I didn’t ask him to do that, but I got in with flying colors. I’m so glad he did that because if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today,” she says.
Rebello completed a double degree in piano performance and choral conducting, and she established her choir as part of the academy’s external studies activities 18 months ago.
“We get all kinds of people from all walks of life, aged from their early 20s to senior citizens,” she says. “They all have some background in music, maybe playing an instrument, so I don’t have to start from scratch with them, I don’t have to teach them pitch.”
The venture began with what Rebello calls lighter music.
“I love world music, and we did songs in all kinds of languages. We sang stuff in Swahili and Japanese, Italian and French,” she says.
Didn’t that pose some diction challenges? “That’s the whole fun of choral music,” she says.
Gradually, the choir began to take a more classical direction.
“I began introducing easier classical material, like Renaissance songs,” says the young conductor, adding that things got serious last summer. “In July we did Beethoven’s Ninth. We had the opportunity to join the other academy choir, which has 80 to 100 people, and I conduct that as well. And we were joined by the chamber choir of the academy, which is a professional choir. It was amazing to do Beethoven’s Ninth.
The concert was at the Jerusalem Theater with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. It was a great experience for all of us.”
Rebello recently started off with a new bunch of choristers and is looking for more of the same.
“We have around 25 people in the choir right now. I love doing this. People come to the rehearsals on a Thursday evening – for some reason, there are a lot of doctors and nurses in the choir, we call it the therapeutic choir – and they come just because of their love of it. I see it really makes a difference to their week and mine,” she says.
For more information about the choir: 675-9909 and www.jamd.ac.il