Ever since the changing of the guard in early January 2015, talk of Sri Lanka becoming a regional hub has been at the forefront of discourse – be it a logistical hub, a technological hub, or a cultural hub. While the first two have been discussed in great detail in various fora – the common consensus generally being that a lot more needs to be done to achieve such lofty ambitions – the latter, while not achieving as much traction, would seem to be the more realistic aim.

Sri Lanka, for all talk of its troubled past, has a rich history of cultural diversity which ought to be celebrated. This was, in fact, something identified by Ranil Wickremesinghe in his first stint as Prime Minister in 1994.

“Even in 1994 when Ranil first became Prime Minister he was very keen on having a national theatre for the performing arts, so this whole Nelum Pokuna was really his brainchild,” Mano Chanmugam tells me. 

While the national theatre was eventually completed under different heads of state, 23 years on from its conceptualisation the Prime Minister may finally be getting the chance to utilise it for its original purpose.

From 21-28 October the Asia Pacific Choir Games and Grand Prix of Nations are set to ‘take over the city’ of Colombo, with Nelum Pokuna set to be front and centre. 38 international choirs from 10 nations, with a further 35 local choirs – 3,000 choristers in total – are expected to descend on the streets of Colombo for a week of celebration. It is Chanmugan, the Chairman of the Colombo Cultural Hub Trust (CCHT), and his team who have been entrusted with bringing down and organising this large scale event.

“About a year and a half ago the Prime Minster called me and said, ‘I want to make Colombo the cultural hub of South Asia’. That was the initial idea,” he explains when asked as to when the project was initially conceived.

With its intended goal being to promote indigenous and international art and culture, nurture local artists, and showcase Colombo as the Cultural Hub of South Asia, the CCHT hopes that this upcoming celebration – bringing with it thousands of international participants, chaperons and spectators – will help achieve their goal of fostering cultural tourism into Sri Lanka.

Indeed, while the Asia Pacific Choir Games will bring some of the region’s finest choristers together, the Grand Prix of Nations which is also taking place in the same week will include several international choirs; four Iranian, two Croatian, and single choirs from Russia, Latvia and Thailand each will be making their way to the country. When they’re not competing, all the choirs will have the chance to tour Sri Lanka.

Daily free concerts
The competition aspect of the festival will be taking place daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Nelum Pokuna and Lionel Wendt theatres, with the public able to come and watch free of charge. Meanwhile, the best choirs each day will be performing special free Friendship Concerts daily at 5 p.m. on the Fairway Centre Stage at Nelum Pokuna. Moreover special sacred music concerts will be performed on 23 and 26 October at St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya.

CCHT hopes these free public concerts will “provide opportunities for each choir to share the musical traditions of their native land with other choirs and the Sri Lankan public.”

There will also be two special celebration concerts titled ‘Asia Celebration’ and ‘Europe meets Asia’, featuring several international choirs and our own indigenous choirs at Temple Trees on Sunday 22 October and Nelum Pokuna on Thursday 26 October. Tickets for these concerts, which will be take place from 7 p.m. onwards, can be purchased on ticketslk.com as of 10 October.

The festival highlight however will take place – weather permitting – on 24 October, when over 70 choirs will traverse the streets of Colombo in a Festive Street Parade from the Nelum Pokuna Theatre around the Viharamahadevi Park, back to a fun filled carnival atmosphere, to end the celebrations at the Nelum Pokuna premises.

For those unable to come and watch the festivities, fret not. CCHT plan on recording all of the celebrations for repeated countrywide televising over the coming months.

“We want to help realise the vision of the Prime Minster in bringing international choral culture of many nations to the youth of our country, many of whom will not have the privilege of foreign travel,” adds Chanmugam.

An event of this magnitude however is not put together without great amounts of external and government assistance. The Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, as well as the Sri Lanka Tourism Bureau, have provided their assistance, while the Government itself has generously waived the fee for the use of Nelum Pokuna. Dilmah meanwhile has come on board as a Diamond sponsor.

The unifying power of music
The overall global media exposure from the event is set to bring in excess of Rs. 1.3 billion in revenue for the country, according to CCHT. This will be made possible in large part thanks to German partner INTERKULTUR – rights holders for the choir games – which will be handling a majority of the event’s social media activity and promotion.

Sri Lanka has a short but illustrious history of participation in the World Choir Games, with local choirs such as ‘Soul Sounds’, ‘Revelations’, ‘The Old Joes Choir’, and ‘Voices in Harmony’ representing Sri Lanka in past years. In the three preceding Asia Pacific Choir Games, which were held twice in Indonesia and once in South Korea, several Sri Lankan choirs won awards as well.

With the overarching aim for CCHT in this venture being to help promote inclusivity and move past cultural and social obstacles to forming a unified country, Chanmugan takes heart from events of the past.

“The first Asia Pacific Games was in Indonesia. It had about 23 international choirs but 110 local choirs, which was great because we didn’t think there would be such a massive turn out in such a conservative country.

“The second one in South Korea had 10 North Korean choirs coming. Just unbelievable. It just shows how singing can bring nations together.”

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