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African Children's Choir brings beauty to gospel and hymns

Since Riverdance, Stomp and Taiko drum acts first took to the road, stage productions featuring exotic music, dance and costumes are a staple on the touring concert circuit.

African Children’s Choir concerts share the same creative components, but in a more intimate, authentic and illuminating way.

The most visible — and audible — outreach project of the organization Music for Life, this ever-changing congregation of 7- to 10-year-olds made its first tour of North America nearly 35 years ago. It’s since racked up a wealth of accomplishments: It’s performed for the Queen of England, appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “American Idol,” and performed alongside gospel legend Kirk Franklin and Sir Paul McCartney. It’s also won a Grammy Award.

Mostly, the African Children’s Choir play churches — hundreds of them, in fact — in dozens of countries. When not performing, they attend free primary schools that are built and sustained by the choir’s parent organization, which also campaigns on behalf of the 12 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Life’s not easy back home for them,” says choir manager Tina Sipp, of the children who, in many cases, live in abject poverty. “Schooling is hard and there is a lot going on with their families. But they have really persevered and worked diligently.”

The African Children’s Choir will perform lively African songs and dances, children’s songs and traditional spirituals at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, at First Baptist Church of Ashland, 2004 Siskiyou Blvd., and at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 28, at Valley Bible Fellowship, 616 S. Pacific Highway, Talent. Admission is free, and donations to benefit African Children’s Choir programs will be accepted. Call 541-482-3836 or 541-535-6322, respectively, or see africanchildrenschoir.com for information.

Music for Life’s direct educational projects are primarily in Uganda and Kenya, countries that are 85 percent Christian. Perhaps not surprisingly, the organization is Christian as well.

“The children are creative in their play,” Sipp says, “and they have a lot of energy. They just want to be outside kicking a soccer ball. I don’t even know how many games they have that take zero equipment. They can stand in a circle and play about a dozen games.”

And they can sing. The 20-member choir’s vibrant musical repertoire is a cross-cultural mix that combines gospel songs familiar to western audiences — “This Little Light of Mine,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” — with music and dance that originate from the children’s own cultures.

“We do a number of ethnic worship songs in which they’re singing in African languages to the drums,” Sipp says. “So there’s a nice African mix and thread throughout the program, and then African dance from each country they represent. There is a dance called the Can Dance, where they take some cans and they beat those rhythmically as well.”

The result is similar to Stomp, except more endearing and joyful.

African Children’s Choir creatives — choir director Barbara Serungoji, technical director Andrew Stanley and international director of choir operations Julia Barnett-Tracy — brainstormed a new album and tour for the choir. The result was a merging of two worlds, infusing traditional western hymns with the vibrant musical style of Uganda.

“Just as I Am” is set to release this fall, and the 49th African Children’s Choir began a West Coast tour in September.

“We landed on the idea of doing an album of hymns, but with a distinctly African feeling,” Barnett-Tracy says.

Price Kwagala, a composer from a small Ugandan village, arranged the hymns to flow with African rhythms and styles while leaving plenty of room to layer the children’s vocals and harmonies.

“Working with younger voices brings out the innocence and beauty of these arrangements,” Kwagala says.

A friend of the choir, Nashville-based, Grammy Award-winning producer Luke Wooten was called on to record the children’s voices in Uganda. He created a make-shift studio in a classroom at the children’s primary school and graciously volunteered his time and talent to capture the children singing each note. He returned to Nashville with the instrumental and vocal recordings in hand and mixed the sounds, merging the hymns and rhythms into a nine-song album that includes six classic hymns and three African gospels.

Sipp first heard the choir back in the early ’90s, when she was just starting out with a college ministry at Washington State University. A dozen years later, she saw the choir again and realized that it was her calling. It’s a decision, she says, that was recently reconfirmed in a big way.

“Interestingly, we number our choirs, and that was Choir 19,” she says. “And wouldn’t you know that the two African chaperones on the road right now with our choir — the one that’s coming your way — were part of Choir 19. They were the children on the stage when I said, ‘I want to do this! I’ve got to do this.’ I love meeting former choir children. It’s a full circle, right?”

The African Children's Choir delivers a vibrant music repertoire. Photo by Sarah Wanyana