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Swiss-backed singers raise the roof in London

Jonas Foundation

The Jonas Foundation Singers, part of a Swiss charity, have been judged Choir of the Day in the BBC Choir of the Year competition.

This content was published on April 3, 2010 - 11:12

Pitted against adult choristers from the southeast of England, the 20-strong youth choir wooed audiences and judges alike to sing their way into the next round of the competition, which could see them perform at the Grand Final in London’s Royal Festival Hall later in the year.

London is just one centre where the Geneva-based Jonas Foundation offers young people opportunities through music. There are also thriving creative projects in Paris and Berlin, as well as regular music workshops in Israel, Armenia and Georgia.

Summer schools are held annually in Switzerland and most recently the foundation started supporting cultural programmes for migrant families in Kyrgyzstan.

Humble beginnings

It’s hard to believe these various centres of creativity started life in the London front room of Swiss ex-pat couple Christine and Ulrich Sigwart a mere 15 years ago.

“My first role was simply to give very basic music lessons to a couple of children, so they could bring musical input to our church service, initially at the French protestant church and then at London’s Swiss church,” Christine Sigwart told swissinfo.ch.

The first group of children to pass through Sigwart’s front room were mainly from London’s French-speaking community, originally coming from Cameroon, Congo, Rwanda and Angola. The majority would not have had the means or the know-how in those days to pursue an interest in music.

Although music had only ever been a hobby for Sigwart, she gave this small group weekly piano, recorder and singing lessons.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Sigwart soon accepted invitations for the children to perform in Sweden and Germany and also started entering her young prodigies for music exams at London’s Royal College of Music.

Diane Bakheme, who now directs the Jonas Foundation children’s choir, was involved from the start and fondly recalls her weekly music sessions.

“I was Christine’s very first pupil. There should be an award for that!” she told swissinfo.ch. “I had a piano class every Wednesday, although I remember always looking forward more to the nice glass of milk and slice of Mr Kipling’s lemon cake than the actual lesson...”

Havens of self-expression

The young musicians soon outgrew Sigwart’s front room and in 1997 the Swiss Church Music School was formed in response to a need for more creative community activities for youngsters living in inner city London.

The success of the school and the impact music was having on the lives of its students gave seed to the idea of creating a foundation to broaden the reach of this initiative.

Today about 50 youngsters from various backgrounds gather every Saturday in a small inconspicuous-looking church hall in south London for a morning of music tuition.

Surrounded by tower blocks and only metres away from one of London’s busiest road junctions – the Elephant and Castle roundabout – St Matthew’s church offers these young people a haven of self-expression.

Children rush between rooms gripping their clarinet or saxophone. Some are so young they struggle with the fingering on their cellos. The choir warms up in the main hall hardly noticing the younger children fly past screeching at the top of their voices, simply letting off a bit of steam between lessons.

The Jonas Foundation website states “by providing a solid music education the School gives the pupils the opportunity to realise and achieve their full potential and build up self esteem”.

Any self esteem still lacking in these youngsters soon dissipates as they take to the stage to share their progress with fellow musicians, performing short Mozart sonatas, excerpts from Telemann concertos, as well as hand clapping and gospel tunes. Nobody is judged; all performances are celebrated.

Fighting exclusion

The foundation website also stipulates that the aim of the initiative is “to give more children around the world a "second chance" or help to transcend the difficulties in their lives”.

There is obviously more to these projects than just being centres of creativity. The social welfare of the young performers is equally important.

“Sometimes we have kids in trouble with the police or at school,” Anthony Bailey, the London director of the foundation told swissinfo.ch. “Here they can find shelter away from the stresses of day-to-day life, let off a bit of steam and be with friends. We’re like their extended family.”

The work of the Jonas Foundation has touched thousands of people throughout the world over the years and yet its success still leaves its founder struggling to find the right words to express how she feels.

“What is happening now and these various projects go completely beyond my initial purpose,” Sigwart said. “I am very happy with what I see in these projects: the joy, the energy, the team spirit and friendship… life simply.”

Andrew Littlejohn in London, swissinfo.ch

Jonas Foundation

The Jonas Foundation aims to help young people find new hope and perspective in life through music, dance and drama. Its main objective is to fight social exclusion and violence, promoting tolerance and cross-cultural dialogue through the arts.

The foundation runs projects “Music and Art for Integration” in London, Paris and Berlin. It also supports programmes at rehabilitation centres in Surrey, England, and in Tbilisi, Georgia, as well as workshops at centres for disabled children in Armenia.

In Switzerland, the foundation offers scholarships to talented students, runs music and drama camps in summer and opens up opportunities for marginalised and disaffected youth through their Integration through the Arts programme.

Past projects include: music workshops for blind children in India; the creation of a puppet theatre in Gaza City; drumming lessons for disaffected youth in Tel Aviv; and a musical performance for young people with hearing impairments in Montenegro.

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