From Palembang to Chichester – Singing to Survive

Last night we sat in the beautiful open nave of St Paul’s Chichester as thirty barefoot women filed past and took their places at the altar end. These were the singers of the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, conducted by Chris Larley about to re-create an extraordinary enterprise of WWII.

In early 1942, civilians caught up in the Japanese invasion sweeping across South East Asia, were rounded up and imprisoned. One group of about 600 women and children, from more than 20 nationalities, existed for the next three years in a series of camps on the island of Sumatra. They suffered starvation, lethal diseases and forced labour. For the full story see:


By late 1943 morale had sunk disastrously and cultural misunderstandings between nationalities flourished. Then two women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, were inspired to create a language-free form of music. They created an ‘orchestra’ by dividing thirty women into four groups by voice (First and second sopranos, first and second altos). They then set well known quartet or even orchestral passages for these voices, using vowel and consonant sounds, but not words. The effect of this ‘orchestra’ on morale, cultural relationships was instantaneous – even their Japanese guards responded to the beauty of it.

Last night the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, with three members of the cast of Tenko, Stephanie Cole and Louise Jameson speaking and Veronica Roberts directing, performed the story. They used letters, poems and interviews with survivors for the narrative. For the musical passages, the choir used the original settings to recreate the  sounds that the women in this amazing jungle ‘orchestra’ made. They sang pieces such as the Largo from Dvorák’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Minuet on G, Bach’s Jesu Joy and many others.

The sound was unique and difficult to describe. It had a silky, liquid quality, softer and warmer in tone than orchestral or even string sounds. In a well-judged direction, we were asked not to applaud until the concert ended. This made the interleaving of story music even more spell-binding and fluent and there was a fully deserved standing ovation at the end.