PORTLAND – Con Fullam stood on the stage of Portland High School’s empty auditorium Wednesday afternoon, face-to-face with 27 teenage girls who know all too well what it’s like to live in parts of the world where women keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
“So the reason we’re here today is because there’s a little girl in Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai who, for six years now, has been going to school because she wants to be a doctor — in spite of the fact that the Taliban has threatened her with death,” Fullam told his pin-drop silent audience.
As he spoke, that same 15-year-old girl lay in a British hospital bed, slowly recovering from an attack in which Taliban militants boarded her school bus in Pakistan on Oct. 9 and shot her point-blank in the head.
“So you’re here today to sing about it, OK?” Fullam continued, his eyes suddenly moist, his voice breaking. “Let’s make it happen.”
And with that, swaying side-to-side as one, the girls began to sing …
There’s a girl in Pakistan who’s fighting for her life
Because she chose to stand up for her rights.
She dared to speak her heart and so she paid the price.
Too brave to be denied, she made the sacrifice …
Sometime on Monday, if all goes according to plan, composer/songwriter Fullam will post a music video titled “Song for Malala” on YouTube.
It won’t be the first time in the limelight for The Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, founded by Fullam six years ago to literally give voice to young women who have fled war, poverty and, yes, mindless men for the life we all take for granted here.
But this time is different.
In the past, Pihcintu — the name is Passamaquoddy Indian for “when we sing, our voices carry far” — has sung to the whole world from stages as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C.
This week, from their own hometown in faraway Maine, they sang to a girl whose simple quest for peace and equality in her Pashtun homeland has set the Taliban back on its prehistoric heels. A girl whose plight now resonates far beyond her home city of Mingora in Pakistan’s restive Swat Valley.
“If not for a pleasant twist of fate, every kid in this chorus could have been Malala,” said Fullam. “And so I thought it very important for them to make a statement to her — and for her.”
Malala, child of peace we will not let you die.
We’ll give your hopes and dreams the will and wings to fly.
We’ll sing your song for everyone on Earth until
Your wish for peace for all will finally be fulfilled …
Nine days ago, Fullam was scrolling through The New York Times’ website when he came across the still-breaking story about Malala.
An outspoken advocate for educating girls in a region where even whispering such a thing can put you in the Taliban’s crosshairs, she’d been gunned down in broad daylight.
And as authorities rushed her to the nearest hospital — she was later evacuated to a facility in England that specializes in war wounds — they feared she was near death.
“I broke down in tears,” Fullam recalled. “And I decided we had to do something.”
Grabbing a pen and paper, Fullam sketched out the song in just 20 minutes. Then he called Dan Merrill, a singer/songwriter from Portland and Fullam’s friend and frequent collaborator, who with equal haste laid down the instrumentation and recorded the lyrics.
Monday afternoon, members of Pihcintu — at full strength, the chorus encompasses 32 girls from 17 countries — trooped into the basement of The Root Cellar at the base of Portland’s Munjoy Hill for their weekly rehearsal.
Waiting for them was Judith Abdalla, at 19 the group’s oldest member and unquestionably its leader, with copies of the new song.
“This is your time,” Judith announced, gently scolding away the adolescent chatter.
Had they all heard about Malala?
Up and down the two rows, heads nodded in solemn confirmation.
“At the thought of something like this happening, what runs through you guys’ minds?” probed Judith.
“Sadness,” replied one of the younger girls.
“Madness,” chimed in another.
“Rage,” echoed still another.
Then, from the back, 17-year-old Amanda Rwirangira spoke up.
“There’s also fear,” said Amanda, whose family came here from Rwanda. “Just that something like that could happen in the world today.”
With that, Judith punched the play button on the CD player. The girls struggled to match the unfamiliar words with the upbeat melody they were hearing for the first time, then the second time, then the third time …
They told you you must hide your face and stay away
From schools and books and if you choose to disobey
They’d take your life and leave your grieving family
With nothing but a lifelong, painful memory …
Fullam, unfazed by the rough start, clicked his fingers to the beat and smiled.
“All we’re doing right now is making it the Top 40 hit in their heads,” he said over the din. “When they show up Wednesday, they’ll know it.”
He was right.
On Wednesday, the girls trickled into the high school auditorium just after lunch to find Fullam already hard at work with a production crew that would rival that on any movie set.
Behind one camera stood Brett Plymale of Plymale Productions. Mark Hensley of MH2 Photo manned another. Peter Nenortas of Satronen Sound tinkered with the audio while up on the stage, Reggie Groff of Groff Video maneuvered a boom camera provided by Olin Smith of Motion Media.
All are from Portland. And all signed on for nothing.
The performers and crew had two hours to pull it all together. They did it in just over 90 minutes.
And from the opening cue … then again … and again … and again … the girls nailed it.
So Malala, we will sing
Like bells we will ring
Until your dreams of peace are realized.
We will sing, we will sing.
Like bells we will ring.
Till freedom falls like raindrops from the skies.
And girls around the world lead equal lives.
Malala, your dreams will never die.
Malala, your dreams will never die.
Malala, your dreams will never die …
After the last note faded, after Mayor Michael Brennan drew a standing ovation from the chorus for coming by and proclaiming Wednesday “Malala Yousafzai Day,” after the girls topped off the video with placards spelling out “Malala You Are Our Hero!!!,” Judith Abdalla sat in a seat high above the now-empty stage and reflected on why, to every girl in Pihcintu, this is a very big deal.
“Sometimes I have these dreams — and I don’t know whether it is a dream or whether something actually happened,” Judith said. “But I always ask, and my mother looks at me weird and asks me, ‘How do you remember that? You were so young.’ “
Regina Nataniel, now of Portland, was a student and the mother of Judith and six other children when she was conscripted into Sudan’s warring armed forces in the late 1990s.
Nataniel eventually escaped the military, but not before she was shot several times. As the authorities came looking for her, she collected her brood from her own mother and, with only the clothes on their backs, they fled for their lives.
“We went on several trains and then we walked the desert for awhile,” said Judith, who was only 5 at the time. “And then we came to a camp. My mom’s wounds are still quite visible. She has bullets in her that could not be removed. She is so strong.”
Pausing for a moment, Judith repeated, “She is so strong.”
Judith now attends Southern Maine Community College, where she studies behavioral health and human services. She’s angry that a girl who wants only to be a doctor — “To save lives, for goodness sake!” — now fights for her own because in a place far from peaceful Maine, men with guns fear any woman who dares thirst for knowledge.
“I just want Malala to heal,” Judith said, as if talking about a close friend. “I want her to heal and not give up.”
And what about Judith? How does she envision her own future?
The young woman who once ran for her life across the desert flashed a fearless smile.
“I’m going to save the world,” Judith replied. “Whether they like it or not.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: