Local man compses music fit for a queen

973-chaffoo2standaloneprod_affiliate742.jpgBy NATASHA DERRICK – nderrick@thestate.com

Erik Campos/ecampos@thestate.com
Composer Albert Chaffoo wrote a song for Queen Elizabeth IIÕs birthday and received a thank you letter from her Highness. Here, he reflects on his international musical career at his West Columbia home on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
In June, Albert Chaffoo found an unusual thank-you note in the mailbox of his West Columbia home. The plain white envelope with British postage could only mean one thing to this former symphony conductor — Queen Elizabeth II had received her birthday present.

Chaffoo composed a five-minute piano piece in honor of the royal’s 82nd birthday on April 21. He asked local pianist Winifred Goodwin to perform the piece and record it in her studio, then mailed the Kinko’s-bound score and CD to England.

“I’ve seen (the queen) so many times,” he says. “I remember when she ascended the throne. There is a lot of sentiment in the piece.”729-chaffoo1standaloneprod_affiliate741.jpg

The letter he received in return was signed by the queen’s lady-in-waiting and bore the royal coat of arms. “The Queen was touched that you should have composed a Piece for Piano especially for her birthday and I am to thank you for your thoughtful gesture.”

Chaffoo’s connection to the queen has its roots in a foreign land, far from his retirement home in the Midlands. He was born more than 80 years ago (he is reluctant to reveal his exact age) in what was then the kingdom of Iraq. The child of a Chaldean textile businessman and a Welsh sailor’s daughter, Chaffoo spent his early years in the family’s nine-bedroom Baghdad home, tinkling away on one of the two 6-foot grand pianos.349-chaffoo3standaloneprod_affiliate741.jpg

When he was college age, Chaffoo’s parents sent him to London, where he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Military School at the top of his class, he says.

At 22 he returned to his homeland and became director of music for the Iraqi army, where he struggled to introduce Western compositions to a region dominated by oriental music.

But London called again, Chaffoo says, and he returned to perform with some of the country’s top groups, including the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. After years of traveling and conducting in conjunction with the BBC and a brief return to Baghdad, Chaffoo, his wife, Peggy, and then 2-year-old son immigrated to the United States in 1956.

Chaffoo spent the following decades traveling the country, teaching at colleges and forming symphonies in unlikely areas. “If I decide to do something nothing will stop me,” he says.

The last job he took before retirement was a 15-year engagement in Salisbury, N.C., where he formed a 70-player symphony, founded string programs in the local schools and started a youth symphony, all while teaching at Catawba and Livingstone colleges.

A few years ago, Chaffoo decided to spice up his retirement days with composing. Seated at a Kobler & Campbell upright piano in his front hall, he wrested 155 pieces from his melodic brain and put them down on paper.

“It’s all here,” he says, pointing to his temple. “When I look at the music, I can hear it in my mind.”

Chaffoo is preparing to send the queen’s piece to British music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, a company he worked with in his London days. If they agree to publish it, he hopes to donate his profits to a British musicians’ organization.

He was careful when composing the piece, which was completed in bits and pieces across one afternoon.

“Because I was sending it to her I wanted to be 100 percent sure it was what I wanted,” he says.

Reach Derrick at (803) 771-8640.