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African Kids' Choir Is About More Than Entertainment

State of the Arts


Published May 5, 2010 at 7:34 a.m.


The 23 performers who will take to the Flynn MainStage this Friday, singing and dancing their hearts out, aren’t members of your typical children’s choir. These kids have come a long way — from some of the poorest parts of Africa — to embark on a yearlong musical tour of the U.S. The group has performed over the years at the Pentagon, the British House of Commons and Royal Albert Hall; it has shared the stage with Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney.

But these are also children, many of whom have lost one or both parents to AIDS or war and all of whom are victims of severe poverty. To them, the ensemble is more than just a singing act.

“They become your second family,” says Annette Nabbale in a phone interview. A former choir member, she’s chaperoning this year’s American tour.

The children, between the ages of 8 and 11, perform songs from across the continent in more than 10 different African languages. Clad in brightly colored costumes, they also dance and perform on traditional African instruments.

Canadian human rights activist Ray Barnett started the choir 25 years ago after he visited Uganda in the throes of its civil war. He was so moved by the singing of one small boy that he founded an organization that would support the education of other African children by bringing them together in a choir. That first year, the group of orphans toured Uganda singing in church communities for donations.

Now the organization draws children from Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, southern Sudan and, most recently, Nkomazi in the northern border region of South Africa. The nonprofit supports participants all the way through college. Before auditioning for the choir, children attend a school program called Music for Life, where they play games, do crafts and make music. Those who are selected to join the choir attend a five-month training academy in Uganda. After their tour, choir members attend the Music for Life Primary School followed by college, also paid for by the organization.

On tour, the choir performs three or four shows a week for as long as a year and a half. The children are accompanied by adult chaperones — former choir members — and a tour manager. Nabbale says she volunteered to chaperone because it felt like a way to give back to the organization. Plus, she knew her experience would come in handy.

“I know what they’re going through,” Nabbale says.

When she spent a year traveling through Europe and the UK with the choir, it was the first time she’d left her native Uganda. “It was very exciting,” she recalls. “It’s overwhelming to see all these big buildings, the roads, the weather, the different food.”

According to tour manager Michelle Cole, it’s more than just musical talent that determines which children will join the tour. “The organization’s purpose is to find the most vulnerable children who will benefit most from an education, so they can go back home and make a difference there and break the cycle of poverty,” she says.

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