In Conversation with Father Joaquim Pereira: Choral Singing in Goa

In Conversation with Father Joaquim Pereira: Choral Singing in Goa

in Interview
Published on: 10 June 2019
Interview with Father Joaquim Pereira, Goa, 2018


Father Joaquim Pereira, Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa, talks about the sacred music tradition that began with the arrival of the first Portuguese missionaries in Goa. The Jesuits followed the then-prevalent system of elementary education in Goa that taught children letters and numbers through songs. Father Pereira believes teaching Christian doctrine using this system was unique to this part of the world.

The following text is the edited transcript of the video interview.


Father Joaquim Pereira: There are different choirs in Goa, with regard to Western music. There are choirs that promote the traditional folk music of Goa. Some choirs are very active every year and regularly take part in Mando competitions.Mando, as we know, is one of the most famous forms of traditional Christian folk music. These competitions are organised by this or that organisation throughout the year. There are many Mando choirs that are very active.

We have quite a few choirs that perform religious or sacred music. Many churches in Goa have parish or church choirs attached to the respective churches, and they sing in voices—three voices, four voices—accompanied by instruments. These church choirs are dedicated to sacred music—music that is religious, music that is sung in churches.

We also have mixed-music choirs that celebrate and promote both secular and sacred music. For example, the Stuti Choral Ensemble. Now, for the last few years, the Goa University Choir has brought to the stage lots of music—traditional world music, Goan music and sacred music, which is both international and Goan.

There are also institutional choirs—Goa University Choir is one such choir. We also have other institutional choirs like the Rachol Seminary Choir, called the Santa Cecilia Choir; the Saligao Seminary Choir, which I conducted and directed for seven years; and the Pilar Seminary Choir.

These are seminaries—institutions that prepare boys to be priests. These institutions have choirs. The Rachol Seminary is perhaps the most famous one. It is more than a hundred years old. It is an institution by itself. And it has, possibly, the only male-voice choir in Goa.

I think that Goan sacred music began with the arrival of the first missionaries that came with the Portuguese. The Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510 and brought with them missionaries. St. Francis Xavier was one of the first missionaries to arrive in Goa. There were the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Augustinians, the Theatines. There were many religious orders from the West who came to Goa. All of them contributed to the teaching of music in Goa.

Now let me tell you something about the Jesuit way of teaching, because I am more familiar with that.

The Jesuits—St. Francis was one of them—began to teach the children of Goa about God in song. They would conduct classes on religion. I am quite sure that they followed the pathshala system, which we had in Goa before the Portuguese arrived. The pathshala is a school that was common everywhere in India under different names. Those schools were teaching children the alphabet, numbers—everything that needed to be taught—in song. The missionaries saw that...the children in Goa were being taught numbers and letters, and that elementary instruction was being imparted in song. So they said, this is the best way of teaching the children here. I don’t think this method of teaching Christian religion doctrine in song was followed in Europe. In Europe it would have been just classes where you explained who God is to the children. But to have all that in song—who is God? God is this. Who is Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ is this—must have been inspired by the existing Hindu schools in Goa. So that is the beginning of the trajectory of sacred music in Goa.

Now the Jesuits, the Franciscans and the Augustinians...they established, with the passage of time, great colleges in Goa, giving degrees in letters and humanities to people in general and specially to their own monks or clergy. These colleges also had a music component that was more advanced than the music taught at the beginner stage.

Here I must make a note. I should have started with something else. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the king of Portugal had ordered that there should be schools in Goa supported by the church. I don’t think there were state-promoted schools at that time. The elementary schools in Goa were promoted chiefly by the church. There the children would learn to read, to write, to count. They were also taught to read and write music. At that early stage, in the middle of the sixteenth century, it must have been rudiments of music, but as it carried on along the centuries, the music schools—they were called parish schools—gave more emphasis to music than all other knowledge.

By the eighteenth or nineteenth century, the students of these parish schools were supposed to read and write music to a great level. They had to memorise Masses and sacred music compositions by people like Mozart, Bach, Palestrina, etc. They had to be able to sing a mass by Palestrina. Palestrina is one of the best-known music composers for Latin Masses. All this was in Latin because it was the official language of the church. There were 500 parish schools in the whole of Goa. The church in Goa was the chief promoter of music and education in this part of the world. When I say church in Goa, I mean all the religious congregations that also had college-level institutions. We have St. Paul’s College, St. Augustine’s College, St. Bonaventure College—they are all common colleges. Of course, there was no BA, BSc and BCom at the time. The university was supposed to give formation in humanities and letters. There was not much science (education) at that time. But there was instruction to a great degree, all promoted by the church.

By the nineteenth century, the state had established other educational institutions, like the first medical school in Asia. These were schools of higher learning, other than the seminaries. The first seminary in Goa was founded, I think, in 1541—the Seminary of the Holy Faith. It was followed by many other seminaries. The existing Rachol Seminary was founded in 1610. It is the oldest existing seminary in Asia. It was a centre of higher learning. Even people from my family—like my uncle, who was born in 1889—went to the seminary to learn humanities and letters. He never intended on being a priest. So many boys—of course, seminaries did not admit girls—would go to the seminary to learn letters and humanities up to the secondary-education level. By the beginning of the twentieth century the state began to found elementary schools and primary schools. That was the beginning of the end for parish schools. More and more people started going to the state elementary schools, which every village had, and parish schools began to dwindle as far as attendance was concerned. By the middle of the twentieth century, there were virtually no parish schools left.

We must remark that the parish churches in Goa, which were also music schools, produced some excellent musicians, such as maestro Micael Martins, a prolific creator and composer and arranger of music. He died a few years ago.

Braz Gonzalves is known all over India as one of the best jazz saxophonists in the country. He, Micael Martins, and so many others began their music education in parish schools. These parish schools produced musicians who left Goa to play in the courts of different kings. They reached Bangalore, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, etc., and played in the royal courts. They also played in Bollywood. Lots of musicians who learnt music in our parish schools have risen to be very good musicians—violinists, keyboard and piano players—in the Bollywood industry. Many musicians from Goa contributed, through their talent, to the rise of Bollywood music.

Going further back, we have learnt that in the mid-seventeenth century, in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the sacred remains of St. Francis Xavier are kept, there was a celebration where natives—probably only male singers, possibly also females—sang in a choir in seven voices. It was specifically an oratorio by Giacomo Carissimi, a well-known Italian composer. They sang it in such a way that one of the priest-musicians from Italy, who was present on the occasion, exclaimed, ‘I think I am in Rome’. He had heard this type of music interpreted only in Rome. That was the high standard the music schools produced through the years.

If the lyrics of the music speak of God, praise God, Mother Mary or any saint, it is sacred music. Sacred music has the deity and saints as its theme. So anything that is directed to praise God and the saints is sacred music. Any music that talks about the world and customs, etc., is not sacred.

Sacred music can be sub-divided into sacred music in general, and liturgical music. What is liturgical music? Liturgy is the Christian word for worship. When people gather in a church to worship God through a set rite, like the holy Mass for example, these celebrations are aided by liturgical music—parts of the rite which have to be sung.

Let us start with universal liturgical music. There have been great composers of Masses in the classical age: Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Handel and others. Every Mass comprised certain compositions such as the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Also, during Mass there is the entrance hymn, the offertory hymn, the communion hymn and the recessional hymn. These are all hymns that are composed for the sake of liturgy.

Sacred music in general would include any other music that has Mother Mary or the saints as a theme. This type of general sacred music can be sung at home or in the neighbourhood where people gather around a cross to pray or sing. We have, of course, well-known litanies that are sung in Goa, and they take place on many occasions. The family will gather their neighbours and their relatives and go to the neighbourhood cross and sing in praise of God. They will sing the litany of Our Lady followed by songs in praise of God, Mother Mary and different saints. It is called the litany, but it is a collection of sacred songs. They are not specifically liturgical songs.

That is the difference between liturgical music and sacred music in general. The latter can be sung at home or in the neighbourhood before the cross, or it can also be sung onstage. But liturgical music can be sung only in church during worship.

In Goa, the parish schools taught music in Latin because it was the official language of the church. Of course, there were also compositions in Konkani, the local language in Goa. Students of the parish schools were encouraged to compose songs in Konkani. There are lots of compositions in honour of Mary and the saints, written by the students of these parish schools over the ages. I am quite sure that most of the hymns that were composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been lost, but some of them are still sung in church.

Talking about language, there were also a few Portuguese hymns. The hymns that came from Portugal were taught in these schools and promoted by the priests, but, as I said, on a much smaller scale because the greater part of Goans, even today, speak Konkani. A very small percentage of Goans speak Portuguese. Although Portuguese was taught in parish schools, it was never used except for litanies. They (the students) would not understand what they were singing but sang anyway because those songs were taught in the church schools.

Something else came up in the middle of the eighteenth or nineteenth: the ‘motet’. The motet is a song sung during Lent, during what we call the ‘Passo’. Passo is the Portuguese word for steps, and we celebrate (Passo) during Lent. In Goa we still celebrate the holy steps of Jesus Christ from the time he was condemned to death to the time he died on the cross. He followed what is called the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. And along the Way of the Cross there are Stations of the Cross. There is a station when Jesus fell down, a station when Jesus met his mother on the way to the cross as well as a station where a woman called Veronica wiped the face of Jesus and, as a sign of gratitude, he allowed his face to get imprinted on the cloth.   

We have a Station of the Cross where Jesus is brought down from the cross and put on his mother’s lap. The last station is where Jesus is buried.

Motets in Konkani are sung at these stations. Here, when I say stations, I mean processions that people take out during Lenten season. Lenten season is 40 days before the feast of Easter. It is a time for repentance, a time for penitence.

During Lenten season there are processions which are taken out through the village, especially after Mass. At one station there is a moment when everybody stops and listens to a song that celebrates Veronica. At another station there is a statue of Christ falling down. Yet another has two statues—one of Mary and one of Christ—where Mary meeting her son on the Way of the Cross is celebrated. And we have the most common station of the cross, which obviously every church does. At the end of the Good Friday celebration, they have what is called the ‘bringing down of the body of Christ’. The ‘body’ is brought from the church and kept on the lap of Our Lady, Mother Mary. That is quite a ceremony, where two people climb the cross and bring the huge statue of Christ down. During that moment motets are sung. A motet is a composition which is sung during Lenten season, more specifically during these processions and at stations of the Cross.

Melodically, there has been a linear development in sacred music in Goa, especially Konkani sacred music. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the songs that were sung in church were more akin melodically to Indian music. It is only later on that they became almost fully westernised.

Take a song from the seventeenth century—I will sing it just to exemplify. There is a song in honour of Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. The song goes like this:

(Singing …) Santan tu mata, santan tu mata, sun surya mirguta, sun surya mirguta … Even the rhythm is more oriental.

This is a song in honour of Mother Mary.     

(Singing …)

There is a later composition, probably from the nineteenth century, that is still sung in churches in Goa. It is very common.

(Singing …) Rozari sa … tu amchi rani …

Now, this melody is much closer to western music than to the eastern kind. If you come closer to the twentieth century and to compositions that are written now, there were many musical compositions, especially liturgical compositions, being composed both by priests and lay people. Perhaps to make it more palatable and popular among the people who came to worship, the musical language was influenced by pop music. We call it sacred music because it is liturgical music. It praises God and Mary, and is sung in church as part of Mass, but the tune is more progressive in terms of melody and rhythm. I will give you one example.  

By the way, this song is called ‘Jesu Vashe’ (Like Jesus), and it is composed by a very well-known Hindu poet, Professor Manohar Sardesai, who died recently. The tune goes like this:

(Singing ...) Jesu vashe ...

This is like pop music.

There is one more. This is an entrance song that says that Our Father in heaven has called us and we come together to worship him as we are all God’s children. It goes like this:

(Singing …) Hamcha ...

You see that this tune is like Western pop music today. It is very different from the first tune that I sang for you, which comes from the seventeenth or maybe the eighteenth century. This is the change in the melody and the rhythm that you will find in sacred music in Goa.