There are times when this small island does indeed seem like the two nations that it is. Case in point, Dr. Charles Vangeenderhuysen lives and works on the French side, deeply immersed in the culture and service to the community, speaking primarily French and rarely coming to the Dutch side. WEEKender was able to interview this interesting gentleman and to share some of his story with the help of friend and interpreter Eduardo Teddy Moroder. The three of us met at O Plongeoir by the Marigot waterfront for coffee and conversation earlier this week.
Charles works long days at the Centre Hospitalier Louis Constant Fleming where he specializes in gynaecology and performs forensic investigations when called upon to assist the Gendarmerie at active crime scenes. Such a career would surely keep most of us fully occupied, but in addition to his medical expertise and of course his lovely wife Claire, Charles has a second passion: he creates choirs, guides and directs their musical performances, inspiring a diverse group of singers to blend their voices in complex harmonies and rhythms. The result is a mutually-shared sense of peace and joy, an antidote to the routines of daily pressures.
The singers of the choir known as “Charlie Par Choeur” meet each Wednesday at the Pianissimo Music School on Rue de Republique in Marigot at 7:30pm. The ensemble is a collection of men and women, sitting in their groups of soprano, alto, tenor and bass – some with advanced musical training, others with little more than a desire to sing. The repertoire of the choir is chosen by Charles, and embraces genres from classical to jazz, and a smattering of folk songs from around the globe.
“I listen to an enormous amount of music and I choose whatever I like. I love all music, classical, jazz, and the typical music from different countries, African songs, Latin American songs, gospel, more rhythm or less rhythm – so I have collected a varied repertoire,” said Charles. “Whenever I hear a song and I feel something, I think this could be a nice song for the choir. So if it reaches my heart and moves me emotionally, I want to share that feeling.” When pressed to choose a favourite style, he narrowed down his top choices to classical, especially Bach, and a lot of jazz.
Raised in Belgium, in the city of Charleroi, in the French-speaking part of that country, Charles is the middle of three brothers. Growing up, he enjoyed the music of his grandmother’s piano and his father’s accordion and piano. They both played by ear, without being able to read musical scores. This influenced Charles to the point that as a youth, he wanted to pursue music professionally, but his parents urged him to follow a more traditional course of study, telling him he could do the music later in life.
Between the age of 15 and 25, he played in a duet around Belgium, playing guitar and singing. At one point, he did some piano studies and that is when he was directed to take up the direction of a small choir. When asked to fulfil this role, he decided to take some courses in choir direction. “Et voila!”
This advice led him by the age of 20 to study medicine in France, but soon upon finishing his schooling and landing a job near Dijon as a physician, he did indeed pursue his love of music by starting a choir. “That village was so small and everyone wanted to be in the choir,” he laughed, joking that perhaps there was no audience at the concerts, as the whole town was in the choir!
His medical career has kept him traveling about the globe quite a bit. After working in France for about six years, he went to work in Nicaragua for two years as a doctor with the United Nations. He then returned to France to work another six years where he met and married Claire; together they then went to Africa for 12 years. They lived in Mauritania and Niger. While in Niger, Charles and Claire adopted two girls from an orphanage, both of whom are now grown, married for 30 years now.
After returning to Europe for a few years, Charles worked at the Public Health School at the University of Brussels, and once again in France, but then they decided to try life in the Caribbean. That decision brought the family to St. Martin.
At each of his postings, in Nicaragua, Niger and Mauritania, as well as in France, Charles created and built at least one choir for the communities in which he lived. He began the St. Martin choir here in 2009 with only nine singers. Their first concert had only 12 singers on the stage. Five of those original choir members are still in the ensemble which now has grown to a group of some 50 members.
He reflected about the magic of seeing a choir grow and bloom: “A choir is a group of persons in which each one is important. They come from everywhere, different social levels, different cultures, languages, countries. They wouldn’t get together except to sing in a choir. They come together to sing together, just for the pleasure of it, to create harmony and the beauty of it, and just to have fun. I think that is the soul of a choir.” He expressed that the role of the director is to make them all feel and be a part of this “something” that he feels. There is an energy transfer, especially in concerts, that is nothing less than pure happiness.
Wherever he has lived, Charles says he has felt very content. He can be at home anywhere, it seems, and he hopes to continue to travel more, especially as he is nearing retirement. Before he fully retires from the hospital, he would like to complete a project that he has undertaken to improve the procedures of the hospital. He also has a great concern to assist in the betterment of the community, and hopes to help with the alleviation of domestic violence and his concerns regarding unwanted teen pregnancies.
With such a dramatic life, Charles was asked who he would want to play him if a movie was to be made about his life. This question threw the music-loving physician for a loop, “I’ll tell you tomorrow at choir practice,” he said through Teddy, the interpreter. Then on Wednesday at Pianissimo, he admitted that he had conferred with Claire, and they had decided that the best actor to play him would be Robert Redford. Now we all have to imagine how Redford would portray the enthusiasm that Charles displays when he stands in front of the assembled Charlie Par Choeur singers and lifts the energy of the group with love and harmony! Good luck, Redford, it will be a mighty challenge indeed.
Want to find out more about the choir? Email [email protected] or phone Marie-Claude at 06-90-28-82-04. And save the date of June 10 at 8:00pm for the next choir concert. The location will be the Catholic Church in Marigot.