“The best divas out there all got a little hint from Whitney,” says Shehara Liyanage. This month, as part of the extraordinary all female ensemble Soul Sounds, Shehara will be celebrating Whitney’s music. It isn’t about copying Whitney, she was inimitable, but about finding a way to honour her. “We are not trying to replicate her because no one can... rather we are being inspired by her music, and the entire process has enriched the choir and myself,” says Soundarie David, Music Director of the choir.
Whitney was just a “powerhouse when it came to beautiful singing,” says Shehara, adding that everyone on the choir has been poring over Whitney’s many albums and in the process they’ve uncovered more than one gem. Lilanka Botejue, one of the choir’s leaders describes the process as very interesting. “Some of this music we’ve never even heard off,” she says, sharing their determination to do the very best they can in honour of a beloved artist. For Lilanka, this was her introduction to tracks like ‘On My Own,’ which she believes might be right up there with Whitney’s best work.
The chorus with its lyrics that run “And I’m not afraid to try it on my own” have been ones that resonate with the choir. “She’s discovering herself,” says Lilanka. And for Shehara, who frankly “idolised Whitney as a singer” there’s a lot that’s poignant and meaningful. They will be performing a good sampling of favourites – both the fans’ choices and Whitney’s. Included will be covers of ‘Count on Me’ ‘When You Believe’ and ‘Dance with Somebody.’ “We have actually taken songs from nearly all her albums, and we are trying to tell a story of her life through the songs, ” Soundarie reveals, explaining that the choir chose to keep the melody and basic structure the same in some cases and they’ve interpreted others slightly differently. Some of the numbers have also been combined into medleys.
Looking through Whitney’s back catalogue has been a journey full of feeling. “It’s been really emotional,” says Lilanka, “You can see her life and what she went through reflected in a lot of her songs…It’s lovely, we’re learning a lot as we go along.”
“No one can ever replicate Whitney’s voice. She was ‘the voice’. However, working on her songs is an experience for Soul Sounds. Adapting some of her arrangements to suit a choir has been a challenge,” says Soundarie, adding that Whitney’s roots in gospel music are something the singer and the choir have in common. “This is something Soul Sounds loves to do, and has to an extent mastered. Therefore we are able to give that gospel flavour to most of her songs.”
There’s still plenty of room for good soloists and this time around several young divas will be stepping forward. There’s Shehara herself, as well as Andrea Melder Labrooy, Aanjanee Jayasooriya, Roshie Wickramaratne James, Tanisha Wijesinghe and Angela Fernando. Singing a Whitney song can be a little intimidating, concedes Shehara, explaining that she’s really determined to just embrace the music instead of attempting to replicate Whitney’s delivery. “Something that was incredible about Whitney was how she could sing from her chest voice,” says Shehara, marvelling at how the singer could hit impossibly pure high notes as well as master the deeper tones. “With Whitney it was always about effortless singing,” she says.
According to Soundarie, this has been a whole new learning experience for the choir. “If there is one thing to learn from Whitney Houston, it is the emotion that comes out through all her songs, and this is what we can learn from putting up this concert.” You may have had the chance to watch Soul Sounds tackle Michael Jackson’s repertoire post the singer’s demise, but Shehara says their approach to this concert is entirely different. “It’s the complete opposite, almost,” she says, explaining that where Michael demanded intense choreography and many costume changes, for Whitney they’re doing it stripped down and soulful, so that the focus is entirely on the music. “It’s a completely different atmosphere and a different feel,” says Shehara, “We just want to thank Whitney for the music.”
‘A Celebration of Whitney Houston’ is directed by Soundarie David Rodrigo, along with well known musicians Mignonne Fernando, Christopher Prins, Revel Crake and Pradeep Rodrigo. The show will be held on Friday, March 30 at 7.30 pm and will be the first performance of this kind to be held at the latest entertainment venue in Colombo, “The Stables” at the Park Street Mews Boulevard.
There is limited seating and tickets can be purchased at the Park Street Mews. More information can be obtained by visiting the Soul Sounds webpage (www.soulsounds.org) and Facebook page.