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Making Music Together, in Person and in Cyberspace

Virtual Choir 2.0 on YouTube features more than 2,000 singers from around the world
Virtual Choir 2.0 on YouTube features more than 2,000 singers from around the world

BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. This week, we explore music through the eyes of two married couples. One of them produces recordings of traditional Hawaiian music. The other husband and wife combine music with poetry from their Irish and Sri Lankan Tamil ancestries.

And, later in our program, we learn how an American composer created an online choir of more than two thousand singers from all over the world.


BARBARA KLEIN: Laurie and Jake Rohrer live near the small town of Ha'iku on the Hawaiian island of Maui. They have a recording studio in their home. They are helping to support the music of artists who they say are extremely talented yet largely unknown.

Laurie and Jake Rohrer
Laurie and Jake Rohrer

Laurie discovered Hawaiian music at the age of eight. She came from a military family stationed at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu.

LAURIE ROHRER: "I fell passionately in love with Hawaii and its expression through music."

At the same time, Jake was growing up in El Cerrito, California. He was friends with John Fogerty and some of the other musicians who later formed Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jake traveled with the band as a manager. Forty years later, he looks back on those days as a great opportunity.

STEVE EMBER: Laurie's family settled in El Cerrito. She and Jake met there and were married, both for the second time.

By nineteen ninety-six their children were out of college. Laurie and Jake decided to retire to Maui. Laurie immediately rediscovered her passion for Hawaiian music.

LAURIE ROHRER: "Traditional Hawaiian music is my teacher. It tells me the legends of the places in Hawaii. It tells me what these places mean to Hawaiian people, and so it connects me to these places and this culture."

Jake also fell in love with Hawaiian music. The rhythms that the singers use were new to him.

JAKE ROHRER: "This rich vein of cultural heritage seems to run through them, especially in families. If one guy’s got the gift, almost the whole family does."

Jake built a recording studio in their garage. The couple produced a CD with a singer named Ata.


BARBARA KLEIN: The Rohrers wanted to continue producing music, so they established their own record label. They chose the name that one of their artists had given to their home -- Ululoa.

LAURIE ROHRER: "It has many meanings, many layers of meanings. But it means abundant growth, and not just plants, but spiritual growth, creative growth, and it has come to represent exactly what happens here in people growing their music in our studio."

The Rohrers decided to invite only native singers they liked to record with them. They say they give their artists freedom of expression and cultural respect. They also give them half the profits once sales have paid back the cost of producing a CD.

There are no contracts. Jake Rohrer says everything is settled with a handshake based on the Hawaiian tradition of pono.

JAKE ROHRER: "You do the right thing with your artists, with anybody you do business with. It’s a matter of being pono and when everybody is pono with one another, lawyers aren’t needed."

(MUSIC: Hula Honeys)

STEVE EMBER: The Hula Honeys are one of the groups that the Rohrers invited to record on their label. Their CD "Girl Talk" won an award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts for best Hawaiian jazz album of two thousand ten.

The Hula Honeys, Robin Kneubuhl and Ginger Johnson, say the couple took a chance on them.

ROBIN KNEUBUHL AND GINGER JOHNSON: "We weren't professionals in the beginning. They just took us in and we've gotten to watch not only what we have done with them but what they've done with a lot of other fabulous performers and musicians here on Maui. They're great supporters.

"We're tremendously lucky to have Ululoa because they're coming from the heart. The bottom line is heart with them, and they're only recording music they really believe in. That's rare.”

BARBARA KLEIN: In Hawaiian culture, stories are passed down from generation to generation through songs. Many artists say the Rohrers are helping to save this oral tradition. But Laurie Rohrer says they are just trying to produce good music.

LAURIE ROHRER: "It cannot be said that we are doing what we do to preserve Hawaiian culture. But if by recording Hawaiian people and their music has that as an end result, we would be very happy."

Laurie and Jake Rohrer are already watching the next generation of Hawaiian singers. When the best of them are ready, they will be invited to record on the Ululoa label.


STEVE EMBER: Colm O’Riain is an Irish violinist. His wife, Pireeni Sundaralingam, is a Sri Lankan Tamil poet.

BARBARA KLEIN: Perhaps the best way to introduce this San Francisco, California, couple is to hear about the first time their parents met.

Irish violinist Colm O'Riain and his wife, Pireeni Sundaralingam, a Sri Lankan Tamil poet, performing together
Irish violinist Colm O'Riain and his wife, Pireeni Sundaralingam, a Sri Lankan Tamil poet, performing together

PIREENI SUNDARALINGAM: "We initially were rather concerned as how our parents would react, as we came from different religions, different backgrounds, two different parts of the planet.

"When they did meet, they found they had many stories in common, stories of colonialism, of resistance, also of poetry and literature and the music that springs out of that. My father said, 'I don’t know what you were so worried about, they’re just like our people.'"

The British declared the island of Sri Lanka a crown colony in eighteen two. That was one year after the union of Ireland with England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom. These actions, say Colm and Pireeni, led to the suppression of the Gaelic language in Ireland and the Tamil language in Sri Lanka.

COLM O’RIAIN: "If caught speaking Irish, you could be sent to jail. If caught teaching it, you could be deported."

PIREENI SUNDARALINGAM: "Tamil language could no longer be used in law courts and schools."

STEVE EMBER: From this history comes a song and poem in Tamil, Gaelic and English called Celtic Raag.


“If I could choose the language in which I spoke to you,

I would chose the dark, red tongue of the Tamil Lands,

The yearning notes, the desert drone,

The heated hum of the monsoon rising.

If I could choose the language in which I spoke to you,

I would choose to speak in Gaelic,

the sliding scale, the sussuration of breath,

The sound of water beating between us.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Colm and Pireeni have something else in common.

COLM O’RIAIN: "We both come from small islands surrounded by large oceans."

PIREENI SUNDARALINGAM: "I’m sure that the sounds of both Gaelic and Tamil were influenced by the fact they evolved right there beside the ocean."

COLM O’RIAIN: "And then the language affects the music and vice versa, the constant back and fro."


“But we lost our words

when we left our land,

when we crossed over that ocean

that tastes of tears."

COLM O’RIAIN: "Pireeni’s poetry is naturally lyrical, and the basis of all lyrical poetry is music. And I grew up in Ireland where there’s a very strong poetry movement."

SUNDARALINGAM: "It was once said that every poet lives as an exile within his own language, and to write poetry that you have to look at the world sideways on, to feel slightly at odds with the world, to look at things with fresh eyes."


STEVE EMBER: Eric Whitacre is an American composer. His music is performed by choirs, including groups that perform only in cyberspace. His Virtual Choir 2.0 brought together more than two thousand singers from around the world on YouTube. So where did the idea come from?

Virtual Choir composer Eric Whitacre
Virtual Choir composer Eric Whitacre

ERIC WHITACRE: "Well, it all started with this video. A young girl named Britlin Losee, who was seventeen at the time, posted to YouTube a video of herself singing the soprano part to a piece of mine called 'Sleep.'"

(SOUND: Britlin Losee)

ERIC WHITACRE: "I was just so moved by the way she was singing and the look on her face. She looked directly into the camera. And she had such a pure and sweet tone. And it struck me: I thought, God, if I can get fifty people to do this all at the same time, from around the world, post their videos and then we could cut them together, we could make a virtual choir.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Eric Whitacre experimented. He gathered singers and had them sing individually into webcams while listening to one of his pieces on headphones. Then he had someone cut the videos together. The experiment was a success. Virtual Choir 1.0 was born.

(MUSIC: "Lux Arumque"/Virtual Choir 1.0)

In last year's video, one hundred eighty-five singers from twelve countries sang Eric Whitacre’s "Lux Arumque."

STEVE EMBER: The video had almost two million views on YouTube when Eric Whitacre started on Virtual Choir 2.0. People from around the world began recording themselves on video. There were instructions like making sure their face was well-lit and dressing only in black.

ERIC WHITACRE: "There's this incredible leap of faith, on the part of the singer, where you’re just hoping, sort of, beyond hope, that somehow this works, right? That you’ll do your little bit for this and then months later find out, oh, OK, that I helped make this happen."


BARBARA KLEIN: Virtual Choir 2.0 features images of singers in more than two thousand videos from fifty-eight countries. Britlin Losee, the young woman whose video started it all, was more than pleased with the result uploaded in April.

BRITLIN LOSEE: "Amazing! I still can’t even explain it. What I just learned from the entire experience is that when you do something really pure out of your heart, you know, not wanting anything in return, you know, miraculous things can happen."

STEVE EMBER: Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 2.0 singing "Sleep" is on YouTube. You can find a link at You can also download transcripts and MP3s of our programs and try the English teaching activities in The Classroom.


BARBARA KLEIN: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with reporting by Jan Sluizer, Lonny Shavelson and Jeff Lunden. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.