POUGHKEEPSIE, NY, USA -- Vassar College student Mrinalini Somani has been organizing concerts to benefit impoverished children in her hometown of Mumbai since she was 12 years old, and she didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop her from continuing to do so. On June 13, Somani hosted her eighth annual WE concert, which was streamed worldwide on Facebook.
The virtual concert, hosted by Somani and the NGO Salaam Bombay Foundation, featured students from the Salaam Bombay Academy of Arts and other schools in Mumbai as well as performances by the Vassar College Women’s Choir (Somani is a member) and other musicians from Vassar and elsewhere.
The performers presented music spanning decades and genres—Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Dua Lipa, and 21 Pilots, as well as some folk and classical selections and even some Bollywood-style performances.
Somani said she launched her project because she wanted to find a way to encourage children from impoverished areas of Mumbai to stay in school. “There’s a huge dropout rate in these schools and I wanted to support programs that teach the children things they enjoy doing, like the fine arts,” she said. The concerts have raised more than $450,000 for the music and arts and other programs in Mumbai schools.
Somani said many of the students she met when she first decided to organize the concerts have become close friends. “They are all so talented, and some of them are now singers and dancers and actors,” she said. “One was recently in a Bollywood film.”
Vassar Associate Professor of Music Christine Howlett, Somani’s voice teacher and director of the Vassar College Women’s Choir, said she was thrilled Vassar musicians were represented in the concert lineup. Howlett said the song the Women’s Choir performed, “No Time,” arranged by composer Susan Brumfield, was remotely recorded this spring after the COVID-19 crisis forced all classes and activities to be done off-campus.
“We did it because it was a favorite of many in the choir without any idea what it would be used for,” she said. “Mrin and I were having weekly vocal lessons, and she mentioned the concert and asked if she could use it. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ It was a no-brainer.”
Howlett noted that the Women’s Choir and other Vassar groups had been scheduled to perform in India during Winter Break, but the trip was canceled when security issues arose after the death of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S. military strike. She said she was glad Vassar students were able to help Somani raise money for the children of Mumbai. “I’m a really big fan of Mrin and what she’s been able to do,” she said. “Vassar’s choirs have a tradition of singing and supporting others internationally—we recently did concerts in Uganda and Japan—and this is just one more example.”
Somani said she is grateful to her friends and supporters for helping her grow her idea for a benefit concert into an international event. “When I first had the idea, I thought of it as a little concert in our backyard that our family and some friends could enjoy,” she said. “When I see what has happened, it’s just amazing to me.”
Vassar College is an independent, coeducational liberal arts college, founded in 1861 in Poughkeepsie NY.