PORTLAND — A Maine chorus of immigrants from around the world brought their singing talents to New York City this month to help raise money for the United Nations.
Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus is made up of 32 women who have come to Maine from all around the globe, including Cambodia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.
Brenda Viola, 17, left life in a Kenyan refugee camp at came to the United States when she was 12. Now a student at Deering High School and Pihcintu member, she said the chorus allows its members to “put our life experience into a song.”
Pihcintu director Con Fullam, a Windham resident, said he founded the chorus 13 years ago as an outlet for young immigrant women who have come to the state, often fleeing danger in their home countries.
He said that the chorus members “quite literally lose their voice” when coming to a new country with a new language.
“This was designed to give those young women back their voices,” Fullam said.
The group, which practices at the Riverton Community Center, performed in early December outside of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in New York City, where they sang a variation of the Christmas classic, “Silent Night.”
The chorus’ new version of the song maintains the original melody, but changes lyrics to convey the struggles of refugee life.
The opening lines are “Silent night, painful night/Our mothers’ tears fall in fright.” The song then ends on an uplifting note, with, “Silent night, hopeful night/Safe and sound, our spirits renewed/Lifting our voices for peace.”
The performance was videotaped, along with interviews with some of the chorus members, with the goal of raising funds for the United Nation’s Central Emergency Response Fund.
Viola saw the New York City trip as an opportunity to “help a lot of kids” currently living in refugee camps around the world. She said it meant a lot to her “because I’ve been there, and I know what that life is.”
The chorus is no stranger to bright lights and a big stage. The group has previously performed at the Today Show and the Kennedy Center, and Fullam estimated hundreds of thousands of people have seen the chorus in person.
“The demand for the chorus is consistently robust,” he said.
Fullam – a music, film and TV producer on shows such as “Greenlight Maine” who also wrote “The Maine Christmas Song” – said the group’s power lies in its message. He said the chorus members, despite their diverse background, prove they have “far more in common than differences.”
Viola described her fellow chorus members as being like sisters, and emphasized that they’ve shared similar challenges and circumstances in their lives.
“I really do trust them, and I love them,” Viola said.
Fullam said the UN paid for the chorus’ trip to New York, and that the video was filmed Dec. 2.
When asked about the origin of the group’s moniker, Fullam said he initially had trouble finding a name that wasn’t already taken. But then he stumbled on “Pihcintu” while looking through a Passamaquoddy dictionary.
The chorus’ name roughly translates, he said, to “when she sings, her voice carries far.”
Portland-based Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus sang their own version of “Silent Night” in New York City and were featured in a video aimed at raising funds for the United Nations.