NEW YORK – For a Fil-Am, Queens-based choral group, it will be like singing the old-time favorite song Holly, Jolly Christmas this season. “It’s the best time of the year,” says Joan Cayabyab, one of the core members of The Voice of Friendship Singers.
The group will be performing under a 77-foot high Norway Spruce Christmas Tree at the world-famous Rockefeller Center, also known as “The Rock,” a national historic landmark in the heart of Midtown Manhattan between 48th Street and 51st on Friday, December 20 starting at 6 p.m.
The Voice of Friendship Singers is the first and only Filipino American group to have been invited to perform at the Rockefeller Center in this year’s Choirs Under the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Event, which runs from December 11 to 20 every night. The Voice of Friendship Singers will perform in the finale this Friday followed by the Antigone in Ferguson Choir at 7 p.m. Ten choir groups were invited this year.
“Opportunity of a lifetime”
According to Cayabyab, they were first invited in August 2019 to be part of a choral performance by Holly Hunter, Producer & Director of National Sawdust Projects and Community Engagement of the production team of The Gauntlet, an “immersive site-specific choral and movement piece” created by Sxip Shire and choreographer Coco Karol. At that time, however, they had to decline the opportunity because of a conflict in the group’s schedule. The opportunity knocked at their doors again in October when Hunter was curating a selection of choirs to perform at the Rockefeller Center iconic Christmas tree.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime!” exclaimed Cayabyab and said that they accepted the invitation as soon as their singers confirmed their availability.
A preview of the group’s retinue of songs was heard during the first night of the Simbang Gabi held at the Philippine Center on Dec. 5, at Fifth Avenue, which is a few blocks away from the Rockefeller Center. Dressed in their regal Filipino attire, they rendered popular Filipino Christmas songs, which the audience loved and sang to the tune of their songs. The choir sings a variety of music: sacred, secular, inspirational, pop, ballad, folk and many other genres. They sing a capella in a semi-circle stance, which is a Philippine Madrigal trademark, Cayabyab told the Philippine Daily Mirror. They perform all year round, with 2- to 3 benefit concerts per year, each year with a different purpose.
Cayabyab said the group’s mission is to serve God, inspire others, and reach out to those in need through music. It is under the leadership of choirmaster Marvin Gayatgay, a Philippine Madrigal Singers alumnus.
In the past five years, they have performed at multiple benefit concerts in different parishes around New York City. It is a member of the Madz Et Al, a network of choirs led by members and alumni of the world-renowned Philippine Madrigal Singers, also known as The Madz.
Choral group’s beginnings
Prior to becoming the Voice of Friendship Singers, the original group’s name was Our Lady of Consolation. It was composed of 6 couples and a 6-year old girl who played the violin. The group was brought together by a small band of family and friends who had the same passion for singing and serving in a Filipino mass.
In 2014, Gayatgay joined the Holy Family Church choir where he met Oscar Villacrucis, a member of the HFC. Villacrucis introduced him to members of different choirs in the community and met members of the Our Lady of Consolation choir. Through his tutelage, the group became known as Tinig ng Pagkakaibigan.” “The foundation of the group is anchored on friendship,” Cayabyab said, and they eventually changed the name to The Voice of Friendship Singers.
At present, the group is composed of 18 members of varying age groups. “We are a mix of students and working professionals from different fields: medical, financial services, construction, administration, and a few others,” Cayabyab said. It is managed by Gayatgay, Cayabyab and Lurleen Garcia. Gayatgay was with the Philippine Madrigal Singers’ batch that won the prestigious European Grand Prix for choral singing. He handled the POEA choral group and the Sampaloc Adventist Choir. He has also done choral coaching.
Most of their members are from Queens and Long Island. Many had choir experience prior to joining the group. Their first concert was at the Lady of the Sorrows in 2015. Cayabyab said that their audience was amazed by the choir’s performance. “Having been trained by a Madrigal, the singing technique, discipline, and decorum were noticeable,” she said.
They serve at the St. Joan of Arc’s Filipino Mass every 3rd Sunday of the month, in Jackson Heights, New York. They are affiliated with Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of the Snows, Holy Family Church, St. Nicholas of Tolentine, and St. Robert Bellarmine.
The group is a not-for-profit organization and their members are not being paid to sing. However, they accept donations and they use it to purchase musical instruments, costumes, music scores and other needs of the choir.