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Ooolation! Singers focus on music during two-week retreat
By Judy Harrison
Special to the NEWS

The Laundromat is crammed with people on a sunny summer afternoon. Young people jostle each other as they stuff jeans, T-shirts, underwear into the machines. They pass around a bottle of liquid detergent, consult on how much to pour in each load, then slam the doors to the front-loading machines.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

They shout across the washers at each other.

"Do you have any quarters?"

On the lawn of a lone home surrounded by commercial development, four teen-agers play a form of Slap Jack. A dark skinned girl plays a card, her fellow campers quickly follow. Suddenly, the swish of passing cars is interrupted when a face card is played.

Whap! Whap'. Whap!

As the card play resumes, the girl begins to hum. Slowly, the human purr evolves into combination song and chant as her friends join in. The words could be Indian or Pakistani or Hindi. Certainly, they've never been sung in this spot before.

The teens harmonize, snap their fingers, play their next card, slap their thighs, throw back their heads and sing. The joy of that moment shows on their beaming sun-tanned faces. The moment encapsulates why they traveled miles to Maine; why they swear they will be back next year.

It is also how they spent the previous week - outside, improvising, harmonizing, singing with people they'd just met. Twenty young men and women from throughout the United States and Bangladesh came together in July to sing in Maine. They spent one week on Green's Island in Penobscot Bay camping and rehearsing at the home of artist Buckley Smith.

Their first stop on the mainland before setting off on a five-day coastal performance tour was the Laundromat, but they could not stop themselves from singing even there. Singing comes as naturally as breathing to the Ooolation! Singers. Founded by the Indiana based composer and choral director Malcolm Dalglish, this was the second summer he's held a singing camp at Smith's place off Vinalhaven.

"Everybody sings always," says Anowara Mahfiz Aana of the experience. A native of Bangladesh, the 17-year-old recently graduated from a girls'boarding school in Connecticut and will attend Clark University in Worcester, Mass., this fall. "Anybody starts humming and everyone joins in. There's so much energy from every single person. We add sounds like clapping our hands, slapping a tree or tapping on a lamppost."

Aana taught the Ooolation! Singers a Bengali song they perform, in clean clothes, at an evening concert on the lawn at the Farnsworth Art Museum. She tells the audience it is a song about lost love that "sounds happy but is really very sad." Aana sings the verses while the chorus behind her repeats a few words that echo over downtown Rockland like a forlorn cry.

The music is infectious. Little children join the chorus, clapping and rocking in their grandparents' laps. Adults sway in their chairs while folks out for an evening stroll lean over the white picket fence, drawn in by the unusual sounds emanating from the art museum.

The singers segue into "Selchie & the Fisherman," a song Dalglish wrote based on Scottish legends about seal people. The story is similar to the Danish fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" - the pre-Disney version.

While Dalglish plays the hammered dulcimer and leads the group in song, artist Smith sketches the story with charcoal on a huge piece of paper taped over a board. He must stand on a ladder to draw the fisherman's cap and the clouds. The futility of the fisherman's quest to turn a seal into a woman is more apparent in the melancholy eyes Smith gives the man than in the song.

This mix of world, folk and traditional music with art and the unique percussion sounds of N. Scott Robinson is Dalglish's trademark. The sound may be familiar to some ears, but it is new to the young singers who visited Maine the last two weeks of July The eclectic style is far different from the formal concert choirs they perform with at home.

"This is: music up the wazoo" says Claire Guyer, 15, of Thomaston about her experience with the Ooolation! Singers. "We have learned so much music in the past week, we can only perform half of what we know in our shows."

Guyer, who will be sophomore next month. at Georges Valley High School, is the only native Mainer in the group. This is her second year at the Green's Island camp and, just like last year, she's the only one who will swim in the ocean.

"It has been great to meet people from all over the country and hear them talk about things that are so everyday to me," she said, "like a crab under a rock. It's been eye-opening for me to see things I take for granted like they do."

Dalglish started the camp about four years ago, after he recorded two CDs - "Hymnody of Earth" and "Pleasure" with a group of young people at his home studio in Bloomington, Ind. The group, dubbed the Ooolites, took his folk choir music home and shared it with people Dalglish would not have reached otherwise. That experience was the impetus for his first camp at the Belmont Education Center outside Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

Bowen Smith, the 19-year-old son of artist Buckley Smith, attended Dalglish's Indiana camp three years ago. The 23-hour bus ride there was so difficult, he stayed on with the composer for three weeks before he could board a bus again and head home to Green's Island. Instead of facing another Midwestern summer, he talked his parents into hosting the camp on their 10 acres of wooded land.

"Now, the hardest thing is turning our home into a summer camp," he admits outside the Laundromat. "I spent a month working at it this year, clearing a beautiful spot on the end of the peninsula for the tents, putting up a big swing in a tree over the water and building four 2-by-12-foot log benches with pegs for legs,"

The group rehearsed outside, singing for almost eight hours every day. They'd sing in one spot for a while, then pick up the benches and move to a different setting depending, on the weather and their mood. Some of their time also was spent in silence; in part,to rest their young voices, but also to allow them to meditate on the music, the island and each other.

That work is evident when they perform at the Farnsworth. Their young voices glide easily from hymns to ballads to traditional songs from Ghana, Croatia and Pakistan before returning to an American spiritual tune. People in the audience join in either because they know a song or because they cannot help themselves.

"I loved it!" says 9-year-old Adrianna Korda of the performance. She is visiting her grand­mother in Camden and accompanies her to the concert. "I think they are amazingly cool! They are just kids and they learned to sing so well. I like to sing and write songs, but mine are much different than these."

Will Brown of Lincolnville knows a lot of Dalglish's songs. They are part of the repertoire of the Quasimodal Chorus, a group of 20 he sings with. He says that Dalglish's work with young singers is important because there is a need "to instill this music and its joy in a second generation," and to share cultures through their music.

In spite of the singers' immersion in music on Green's Island, Dalglish did not name the chorus and the camp after some obscure musical term. Ooolation comes from the geological term oolite, with just two Os. Southern Indiana, Dalglish explains, is full of limestone quarries. The tiny, dark particles found in the limestone are called oolites. The composer likes the sound of the word threw in an extra O to make the Ooolation! Singers.

"The word begins with a pleasant surprise and ends with grin," he claims.

A perfect description of group's recent singing sojour Maine.

More photos from Maine camp

More photos from Ooolation!

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(812) 333-0838
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