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Many Voices, a Single Tongue : Hymns in Spanish Unite Singers in Common Bond

December 19, 1985|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH GATE — For one Sunday a month, singers in Coro Unido lose their religious and ethnic identification.

They come to choir rehearsals at a church here as Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists and Assembly of God members.

On the threshold of the South Gate United Methodist Church, the members of Coro Unido, which means United Choir, are Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Korean-Cuban, Chinese-Guatemalan or Irish-English-Scottish. But once they enter, they come together for one purpose: to sing songs of praise in Spanish-language hymns.

"When we're here, we don't see each other in denominations and races because we have one thing in common: Christ. That's what matters," said Raquel Achon of Long Beach, the director of the choir that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

The music, its members say, provides a common ground for their beliefs.

"We don't see the differences. We see the things in common," said Graciela Lim, a choir member who is studying music and history at California State University, Northridge.

Although the choir sometimes sings classical works by Bach, Beethoven and Handel, its forte is performing original church hymns and choral music written by Latino composers, said Achon, who came to the United States in 1967 as a Cuban exile.

"We sing very exciting . . . and new pioneering music that exploded since Vatican II," said Gertrude Suppe, a choir member and collector of Spanish hymns. Suppe, who is a member of the South Gate church, added that when the Roman Catholic Church decided that services could be held in the language of the people in 1963, "new songs sprung up everywhere" by Latino composers. The songs have mainly come from Mexico, Spain and Brazil.

In addition to being choir director, Achon--who is working on a book about the history and development of Hispanic hymnology, a subject she has studied for 20 years--is the group's founder and its guiding light. She has taught piano and directed various choirs since 1968. Her husband, David, also from Cuba, is minister of the Latin American Methodist Church in Long Beach.

Achon organized Coro Unido in 1975 at the request of the Assn. of Evangelical Churches of Southern California, which wanted a Spanish-language choir for its annual convention. She contacted friends and acquaintances from other churches and arranged for their choir members to participate in what was supposed to be a one-time-only event.

But choir members wanted to continue the unusual gathering and soon formed Coro Unido, with Achon at the helm. Membership now stands at 43, with members coming from churches all over the Greater Los Angeles area.

Since most of the choral singers belong to the choirs in their own churches, they have taken what they learn about music back to their churches. Since joining the choir, many members learned how to read music and things such as the importance of rhythm, said Achon, who has a degree in music education from the George Peabody College for Teachers in Tennessee.

"It betters our choir," said Adela Gomez, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Magdalene in Glendale. "When we get this kind of experience, we bring it back to our church. Our own choir improved quite a bit."

Learning About Music

"What I really like is I've become educated in different types of Spanish music," said Violetta Chang, who also performs with a choir at her church, El Divino Salvador Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.

The requirements to join Coro Unido are few: All Achon asks is that a person carry a tune and enunciate properly.

"I don't ban someone who wants to come and join us," said Achon, who currently teaches private piano lessons in addition to directing the choir.

Although the choir has performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Anaheim Convention Center, most of its performances are in churches. The choir doesn't charge a fee to appear, Achon said, but will accept donations. Members pay $6 dues a year, which help defray the choir's expenses.

"We get paid in the fact we can keep close fellowship--a group bound together by love," Achon said.

The group will sing at 4 p.m. Sunday at Rosewood United Methodist Church, 501 N. New Hampshire Ave., Los Angeles, and at 5 p.m. Dec. 29 at La Plaza United Methodist Church, 115 Paseo de la Plaza, Los Angeles.

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