Tour of Sri Lanka: Jaffna

TomTom Rothwell, a Fourth year MML student and Counter-Tenor Choral Scholar, tells the adventures of the third leg of our tour of Sri Lanka…

Although the long bus ride up to Jaffna was mainly used to catch up on some well-earned rest, the approach to the northern province was far from dull. At the border to the formerly war-riven region, the coach was stopped at a checkpoint at which all of our passports were checked (along with those of any Sri Lankans wishing to enter the zone). It was only later that we realised that we had been granted special dispensation from government to enter the region and that Jaffna was officially closed to most foreigners. Tension was clearly still in the air, but such concerns quickly overshadowed by the region’s natural beauty.

We had been told that there was the possibility of meeting a wild elephant on he approach to Jaffna, conveniently called the Elephant Pass. Sadly, we were graced with no such experience but the constantly changing panorama jaffna workshopof lagoons, paddy fields and palm trees  was enough to charm the eye for the three hours or so which remained in our journey. Towards the late afternoon, ours wheels pulled up outside St John’s College, Jaffna, a school founded by the London Missionaries in 1823. It was here that we were warmly welcomed by the entire school community and held another workshop. This time, the groups were small enough to give each singer quite a lot of individual attention. We were struck by the enthusiasm of the singers and their ability to learn within such a short space of time.

After the workshop, we were transferred over to our hotel, a large and comparatively luxurious complex in the centre of Jaffna. We were given just enough time to shower and change into some smarter clothes before heading off (with police escort!) to the British Council where we were most generously hosted for a Festive Garden Party, although the evening heat in this, the hottest part of the country, left us Brits wondering about how ‘festive’ it could truly be. It was fascinating sharing the insights of the few Brits who had experienced the post-war tensions on a daily basis. It is clearly a very difficult situation, but the British council carries out tireless work to build up cultural relations within the region. We were presented with a vast array of Sri Lankan finger food and wine, although the main event of the evening was our short performance of Christmas numbers for the assembled company. We were very pleased to include a piece by composer Martin Stebbing, Light of the World, composed during his time in Crete. Although he himself would agree that the piece required a cathedral acoustic for its flowing wash of harmonies, we hope that our performance did it justice. The applause of the audience suggested that it went down very well. Returning to the hotel, some went to the bar for a drink, others to the pool, and others retired for a well earned sleep.

In the morning, a number of Choral Scholars headed off on a morning excursion to the beach, enjoying a pre-breakfast paddle and a trip to a tree under which Buddha reputedly reached  Enlightenment.

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After breakfast, at which we tried a cordial which can only be described to have tasted like Calpol, we set off back to St John’s College to prepare for the joint Carol Service later that evening. Building on our work done in our workshop the previous day, the rehearsal ran very smoothly, interweaving numbers by both our Choir and the choirs of St John’s and the local girls college, Chundikuli. After our hard work, we were treated to a delicious Sri Lankan lunch at the college and following this, we were kindly presented with Christmas cards.

IMG_3179The afternoon provided the opportunity for a shopping trip.  Although we were originally dropped off at a rather disappointing shopping centre offering either supermarket food or men’s suits, some members of the choir were able to visit the market at Jaffna, quite an experience, both from the point of view of the number of wares on offer, as well as the bombardment of sales pitches from all sides. In the late afternoon we returned to St. John’s College for the carol service itself. We very much enjoyed hearing the local talent on offer and felt that the service provided opportunities for genuine cultural exchange. This was topped off by another delicious supper at the school. Thank you to St John’s both for their hospitality and musical enthusiasm!

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