Turning Paper into Sound: Maadi International Choir

Just a month ago, you might have heard Christmas carols seeping out of St. John’s Church in Maadi. 


These melodies softened the slight chill of Cairo winter and transported audience members away from the desert for a brief moment to enjoy classic holiday tunes gearing up for the 25th.


Each week, members of Maadi International Choir find time in their busy schedules to shed themselves of the weight of daily responsibilities and join voices to collectively produce art as part of the Maadi International Choir.


“It’s nice because it’s made up of people from all over the world that want to come and sing,” said Barbara Comar, current director of the choir. “It’s a reminder that music is universal, not just a tradition, but a connection that people have. It’s really great to meet people from all around the world.”


Originally known as the Maadi Community Choir, it began to color Cairo with music in the 1980s, under the conductor, Raouf Zaidan. It later passed on to Bruce Kramer who directed Comar when she first joined as a singer in the choir. Once Kramer had to leave in the 1990s, she took over direction of the choir and has stayed with the group ever since.


Mostly made up of expats in Cairo, the choir offers a sense of community to those who seek a social outlet in a foreign home. The group also allows individuals to break from their everyday lives and explore connections with people of differing backgrounds. “There’s a tendency to be grouped by language and background, but this choir offers the chance to pull from different groups,” explained Comar.


The choir performs choral music, holding two concerts for Christmas as well as another two in the springtime to showcase the hard work put in to master harmonies and stun audiences. Although the choir has limited time to meet as this is a volunteer group, their voices ring with immense talent and a true passion for music.


Each season, Comar selects music, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Faure, and makes arrangements depending on the members making up the group. The choir usually focuses on a major classical choral work with piano accompaniment. On occasion, the Maadi International Choir performs with other musicians as well. The musical season runs from September through May, with a short break for members to rest their voices over the holidays.


The current choir is smaller than usual, with thirteen people who recently performed in the December concert. In previous semesters, the group has featured up to 30 members. However, even with just thirteen members this session, the group represents a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Kenya.


The choir’s diversity is not only rooted in its multiculturalism, but also its mixture of musical backgrounds. Although most who join have had some experience with music, there have been those who join as beginners. Singers with more experience often help guide new members, demonstrating the true collaborative essence and familial quality of the group.


Though its voices speak numerous languages, the choir sings mostly in English – with the exception of the occasional foreign tune, such as “Cantar!” in its most recent performance. It can be difficult to get a hold of music in Cairo, but the choir makes it work, making use of Comar’s file cabinets – replete with music – and collections at the American University in Cairo and Cairo American College.


While the choir attracts different individuals every semester as people flow in and out of Cairo, Comar has settled into her life in Cairo, having now directed the choir for about 25 years. When asked about her decision to stay here for the long term, she puts it simply: “I first came here for adventure. I liked it and I stayed!”


Some of the reasons she has so enjoyed living in Cairo mirror those for which she enjoys the sense of community in the Maadi International Choir. “I really appreciate the people here,” Comar reflected. “They are tolerant, easy to talk to, and nice. You can start up a conversation with anyone.”


Outside of the choir, Comar works as a private music teacher for voice and piano. She previously studied music while in university, concentrating on conducting. Always drawn to music, Comar says she loves collaborative and creative nature of making musical art. “I love the way you can express things in a beautiful way, even if they might not be beautiful,” she said. “You come together with other people and make something beautiful happen.”


Though once a singer herself in the choir, Comar says she enjoys conducting and arranging music for the group because of the chance to witness the creative process from a unique perspective, watching as the music notes turn into actual sound. “It’s a different experience,” she thought. “I love having it all come together – all these different people. They come and take this printed stuff on a page and make music out of it. Not just notes and words and pitches, but actual music. It’s pretty exciting.”

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    Just a month ago, you might have heard Christmas carols seeping out of St. John’s Church in Maadi. 


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