In a quiet corner of Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, dozens of young girls are getting together to sing in African and Native American languages, as well as Latin.
They're part of a unique new musical group "Sister Cities," which also has members in West Philadelphia and Camden, Philadelphia's "Sister City" across the Delaware.
Classically trained mezzo soprano Alysia Lee is guiding middle-school girls at Kensington's Memphis Street Academy.
"We have a little pitch problem here," Lee says as she sings an example.
Lee is founder of the Sister Cities choir, and a Sistema fellow. El Sistema is the international program that provides high-quality music education to kids who might otherwise not be able to afford it.
She herself fell in love with opera as a second grader when her mom took her to the Baltimore Opera company.
"They sang 'Porgy and Bess'' 'Summertime,' and I was really blown away," remembers Lee. "I think it was the proximity of the classical professional singers to my, you know, young body, that really made me feel like art was something I could create, because I was feeling the creation so close to me."
Lee started to research her choir in Philadelphia and then was drawn almost irresistibly to Camden.
"The one thing that everyone would say in Philadelphia was 'don't go there, it's not safe, you're not going to be safe, no one's going to talk to you there,'" Lee says. "Because I'm a little bit stubborn, I said, 'great!' That's exactly the place I want to go, because I knew that there was music to be made in a place where there's social isolation and people are feeling disconnected, frustrated with the violence in their communities and they really want to raise their voice.
"And I knew that we would be able to find passionate young singers there."
All that's required is a desire to sing
The girls don't have to know how to sing. They just have to want to sing.
"They're really kind of these open books!" Lee says. "And they're really these clean slates, and they don't know the things people might think are the mundane parts of learning music. They're just excited to learn everything that we have to present to them."
Lee is teacher, mentor and mother hen as she organizes a group of young women full of energy after a long day at school.
"Miss Adrian, could you grab those ... could you wrangle those girls over there," she says. "Oh, I'm waiting. Music starts from silence."
First the girls quiet each other with a big "shh," then young voices lift in an African dialect.
There are three separate groups to the choir — one in Camden, one in West Philadelphia and this one at Memphis Street Academy. Formerly a troubled, low-performing district school, Memphis Street is now run as a charter by American Paradigm Schools.
"I've seen girls stand a little prouder, walk a little taller, care for each other and support each other," says Stacey Cruise, American Paradigm Schools CEO. Even though it's early days, she's already seeing a difference.
"I'm hearing girls talk about a future beyond high school, and realizing that they can do that."
Eighth grader Jomarys Suarez dreams now of becoming a doctor or singer.
"It took me from lots of bad things I've done, and got me out of trouble," Suarez says. "It's just good!"
"Nobody laughes at you"
"It's wonderful. I would love to be here day and night," says seventh-grader Genesis Suarez. "Because first of all, it's all girls, so no boys get on your nerves and stuff," she says. "You make new friends, and nobody laughs at you. Let's say you sing wrong or do wrong, nobody laughs at you."
Lee has taken the girls to a production of "La Boheme" by the Philadelphia Opera Company. In September — dressed in purple — they participated in a flash performance done by the opera company at 30th Street Station.
"It was pretty funny to have all these guys coming out of nowhere singing," Malyila Rose Carabello says. "They were all hiding their notes and all."
All this costs about $500 per child — and Lee says she spends a fair amount of time fund-raising. But somehow she has found the funds for Sister Cities.
The plan is to bring the three separate groups together for mega concerts several times a year. Lee says they'll be working on Vivaldi's "Gloria" for May.
"As this product becomes something delectable and delicious, that the community can't get enough of, the program will grow," Lee says. "We're really excited about that."
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