Ibe Sodawalla: the ferocious conductor behind the band’s exciting holiday tradition, “Carol of the Bells”


Courtesy of Portage Central Bands & Casey Spring, Photographer

Ibe Sodawalla, the ferocious conductor of the annual PC Brass & Percussion holiday tradition of “Sarajevo (Carol of the Bells).”

Ethan Lee, Opinion Editor & Business Manager

When a layer of snow blankets the ground (or not) and colorful lights dot the landscape, it signifies the arrival of the in-school Holiday Concert: an opportunity for musically-inclined students to show-off the selections they have been diligently preparing for, and to jazz up the school with some festive spirit. For returning students, the day of the concert is yet another opportunity to witness a timeless Portage Central classic—the rendition of “Sarajevo (Carol of the Bells), by our band’s brass and percussion, and the “wild” conducting of Ibe Sodawalla.

Sodawalla has been with the school from 1997, the year he started his second year as a trombone student at Western Michigan University in the musical education program. “One of the former trombone instructors that was here [at Portage Central] was graduating,” said Sodawalla. “She thought I would be a great fit, and introduced me to the band directors. And before I knew it, I was the new trombone instructor here, and I’ve been at Portage Central ever since.”

A few years later, he established the Legends Performing Arts Association in 2001, and became its Executive Director and CEO. Legends is a not-for-profit organization which strives to “focus on life skill development and support the foundational purposes of music/arts education in schools,” as stated on its website.

“I started the program as a brass-percussion ensemble, and then it became a group that we called Legends,” said Sodawalla. “Then, in 2006 I formed a non-profit organization that now is independent of the school, but we have some great relationships in the area. Everyday, I get a chance to help sponsor a drum and bugle corp that participates with Drum Corps International (DCI) and I now provide opportunities for about 150 students in the summer, which is pretty awesome.”

His position at Portage Central would lead him to compose what most students at school would remember—a loud and dazzling rendition that Sodawalla says started out as a transcription of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s version of “Carol of the Bells.”

Courtesy of Portage Central Bands & Casey Spring, Photographer
A snapshot from the 2018 Holiday Band Collage concert, featuring the PC Brass & Percussion ensemble performing “Sarajevo (Carol of the Bells).”

“When I was growing up, the orchestra had just started, so I was really wild [about it] by then, and how often Carol of the Bells was played on the radio,” Sodawalla said, who was looking for a way to recruit brass players and percussion students for his after-school program. “This [piece] was a way for me to connect with them, so I decided to throw this in the concert. [The band directors] Mr. and Mrs. Flynn thought it was a great opportunity for us to do that, and sure enough, it has become a tradition to have it on the concert every year, and it has just grown every year also.”

“Sarajevo” was never a concrete composition. In fact, it went through several changes over the years, with Sodawalla adding in different percussion snippets, and parts of other versions, such as composer David Foster’s.

“Over the past 10 something years, it has had so much transformation that it is now stands on its own,” said Sodawalla, “but the basis of it was pretty much the excitement and energy of the Trans Siberian Orchestra version. We don’t get the electronic aspect of it—with violins and different things that [the orchestra] does to amplify the sound—but brass and percussion alone, there is so much energy and so much raw power. It was really exciting to try to take that element and do what we did.”

However, to non-band students, Sodawalla is most remembered for his animated conducting onstage during the concert, something that has become somewhat of a fixture, a guaranteed happening during the performance of Sarajevo.

“I never thought about my approach to conducting being as specific way, said Sodawalla. “I just see things through colors and motion, and I definitely feel the music every time. I feel like expressing yourself through movement, is just something that gets a little bit more out of the performers, and it just is a two minute wild ride that I have. The students really just respond and I really love about that ‘in the moment,’ live performance.”

Sodawalla remarks that he is always excited to know that students’ peers can watch the band program and see the excitement that the band members do for their audience.

“When you’re on stage,” said Sodawalla, “and playing for your family, it’s one thing, but playing for your peers—and them giving you a standing ovation—that just really spoke with me as how powerful the arts are in schools, and how well received they are. For me, at Portage Central—gosh, I’m going on, like, almost 22 years now—and seeing the program develop and seeing how much it flourishes here and how much support is continues to happen, it really means a lot. Anybody who wants to have music in their lives, for the rest of their time, this was a great place to see that foster.”