A remarkable and widely acclaimed group of young singers will perform at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center on Friday. When the African Children’s Choir takes the stage, its repertoire will include ethnic songs a cappella to drumming and dance as well as gospel favorites. It’s a rare opportunity to see this internationally acclaimed choir — made up of children ages 7 to 10 — which has garnered numerous honors: a Grammy nomination, appearances on several movie soundtracks and even a performance before Queen Elizabeth II.
The choir’s beginnings go back to 1984 when human rights activist Ray Barnett was travelling in war-torn Uganda and gave a young boy a ride from his destroyed home to a safer village. On the long trip the boy sang. Barnett couldn’t forget the impression created by the boy’s singing, the sense of joy and hope in the midst of appalling devastation. As a result of this experience, Barnett came to two important realizations. First, he saw that the only way to help was one child at a time. Second, and probably most important, he understood that it is not images of horror and destruction that inspire people to help, but the joy and hope that somehow survive in the midst of great suffering.
The first choir was made up of orphaned and vulnerable children in Uganda. Proceeds from tours (primarily in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.) provided for the education of the choir members, and also funded the building of an orphanage. Later, funds supported the nonprofit program Music for Life, which established literacy schools for the neediest children in several African countries. Since its founding, the choir has raised funds to provide educational opportunities for more than 52,000 children in Africa and help 100,000 more through relief and education projects.
The 18 choir members travel with seven chaperones, and every effort is made to keep the children rested and comfortable. Choir manager Tina Sipp explains: “The tour is arranged so that no more than three hours of travel in their converted Greyhound bus are required — if more, they travel the day before. They arrive at their destination by 2:30 and the children have a nap, usually staying in groups of two and three with host families who provide meals, local transportation and recreation.” Education is not neglected: On alternate days the children have rehearsals and schooling to keep up with classmates at home.
Present tour leader Eva Nalukwago performed with the group from 1995 to 1997 and attended one of Music for Life’s three schools in Uganda. She treasures her vivid childhood memories of Sea World, Disneyland and a Christmas in Canada where she made snowmen for the first time. Now she oversees the choir’s performances and coordinates its travel and show arrangements with various hosts and venues.
In Oxnard the choir is hosted by Oxnard Musical Youth Theater (O’My Theater). “We aim to build the greatest choir Ventura County has ever seen . . . heard,” says O’My founder and CEO Cheryl Kewley. “We have called upon local youth groups to sing one of their favorite songs to open the program at 6:30.”
The African Children’s Choir will perform at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way, on Friday, July 29. The performance is free but reservations for seating should be made at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.oxnardperformingarts.com.