In October 2013, NFFWRA arranged for members to attend this extraordinary musical performance commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the first performance of the Women’s Vocal Orchestra created in the Civilian Internment camp at Palembang in Sumatra in 1943.
Margaret Dryburgh, the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister, who was the Principal of KuoChuam Girls’ School in Singapore, and Norah Chambers, nee Hope, a music teacher in Singapore, both fled from Singapore just before it fell on 15th February 1942. By chance they were interned together in Sumatra after being captured on Bangka Island later that month.
After several moves in dreadful conditions they moved to a dilapidated barracks in the middle of the Sumatran jungle at Palembang where 600 women and children were crammed into this insanitary compound with 50 to a hut and just 27 inches of bed space.
This was the internment camp upon which the BBC TV series Tenko was based. To restore morale and to overcome the language difficulties (there were 21 nationalities in all, although the original Palembang vocal orchestra was made up principally of British, Dutch and Australian women) Norah Chambers had the inspired idea to form an orchestra by using women’s voices in place of musical instruments. She and Margaret Dryburgh wrote from memory the music of various pieces on little scraps of paper that they could find. They then set about condensing complex classic works, taking main themes with the right modulations and harmonic changes and weaving them into miniature works – complete in themselves. Instead of words they would hum, la or sing vowels to the music.
This 70th anniversary celebratory concert was performed by the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra (which had been created for this concert) at St. Paul’s Church, Chichester because one of organisers of the event is a member of the church and is the daughter of Shelagh Lea (nee Brown) one of the survivors from the prison camp who was a member of the vocal orchestra. Shelagh was interned with her mother who subsequently died in captivity and is buried at Palembang. The concert was organised by five women who each have a deep and abiding interest in the history of internment in the Far East during World War II. They are: Dr Bernice Archer PhD, author of The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese 1941-1945: A Patchwork of Internment (2005) Margaret Caldicott, flute teacher and daughter and granddaughter of two of the Palembang women (Shelagh Lea, nee Brown and Mary Brown) Barbara Coombes (MA), lecturer and biographer of Margaret Dryburgh and Shelagh Lea Meg Parkes MPhil, a researcher in WWII Far East captivity and author of two books based on her father’s Far East POW experiences Lavinia Warner, author of Women Beyond the Wire (1982), which tells the story of the women and Palembang and the creation of the Vocal Orchestra. Lavinia, an independent film and TV producer, created and storylined the successful 1980’s TV series Tenko which gave a fictionalised account of the experiences of the women and children imprisoned by the Japanese. It was during the Researching Far East POW Group conference at the National Memorial Arboretum in 2011 that Meg Parkes first suggested to Bernice Archer the idea of organising a concert in 2013 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Vocal Orchestra’s creation. Margaret Caldicott, Barbara Coombes and Lavinia Warner eagerly supported the idea. The organisers shared the belief that the women of Palembang, and in particular Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, should be remembered and honoured for their courage, tenacity and creativity. Their example is as vital and life-enhancing today as it was 70 years ago. All felt a duty to bring this history to life for a new generation and to encourage anyone who is inspired by it to mark the 70th anniversary (or any future anniversaries) in their own way. The narrators of the concert, who told the story of the vocal orchestra, and read poems written by some of the internees, in between the music, were the well-known and accomplished actresses, Stephanie Cole and Louise Jameson. They, and Veronica Roberts, who was the concert’s producer, were very familiar with the story of the women prisoners of the Japanese having all previously starred in Lavinia Warner’s drama Tenko. To close the concert the audience joined with the Vocal Orchestra to sing the words of The Captives Hymn which was composed by Margaret Dryburgh in 1942 and was sung originally at a camp Sunday service. Thereafter it was sung every Sunday throughout their years in captivity. This same hymn was sung at the Service of Dedication to the Repatriation Memorial at The Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Southampton the next day.
The concert was sponsored by the Malayan Volunteers Group and any profit will be divided between a memorial for those civilians who died in this area of Sumatra and the local school in Kampong Mengelang village in Muntok, on Bangka Island, Sumatra.
Those of us privileged to be present for this moving and historic performance were astonished to learn afterwards that the all women choir had only been rehearsing for six weeks. More details about the concert can be found at website http://singingtosurvive.com/ The Singing to Survive concert was professionally filmed in full so that it can be retained as an important record for the Imperial War Museum and other archives. A documentary about the vocal orchestra incorporating footage of the concert is also in the planning stages which may eventually be made publicly accessible.