Young choir features voices of innocence

April 07, 2002|By Gregory Kane

MAKE SOME time, if you're not busy this morning, and take a tour of West Baltimore. If you head west along Lafayette Avenue from, say, Druid Hill Avenue, you might come across the statue of Billie Holiday that stands at the corner where Lafayette hits Pennsylvania Avenue.

Look to the left, and you'll see a football field. The Royal Theater once stood there. Proceed further west until you come to the 700 block of Lafayette, between Myrtle Avenue and Fremont Street. The Macedonia Baptist Church is in that block. If it's around 11 in the morning, park the car. You might want to go in.

You may hear the voices of children lilting from the church: soft, innocent voices singing gospel, traditional spirituals and contemporary songs. Some of the tunes will be in English, others in African languages you might hear if you were in Uganda.

You may see Jericho Nantume there. She's 6 years old and comes from the village of Kasana in Uganda. One day, some people came to her village representing something they called the African Children's Choir. They held auditions. Jericho auditioned and was chosen. The better for her, since she says she loves to sing and dance.

Joshua Mugabi will be there, too. He's 9 and is from the same village as Jericho. Joshua follows in the footsteps of his elder sister, Anna, who was a member of the African Children's Choir.

"She told me she visited America," Joshua told Kathleen O'Connor, the tour leader for the choir, "and America had very nice people."

Twenty-two other children - 10 girls, 12 boys - will join Joshua and Jericho as they sing at Macedonia today. The group of children, ranging in age from 5 to 11 years, is the 21st such choir to emerge from the African continent since Ray Barnett, a human rights worker who left Northern Ireland to work in Africa, heard an African boy singing all the way back to a refugee camp and decided to start children's choirs and have them tour Great Britain, Canada and the United States.

Thus was the African Children's Choir born 17 years ago. There have been choirs of youngsters from Kenya, southern Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and now Uganda again. (Joshua's sister Anna sang in Choir 13.) Choir 21 was trained at Makindye in Uganda starting in April of last year. Training usually lasts three months, but Choir 21 didn't start its tour until Oct. 22 of last year because of several complications, the events of Sept. 11 not being the least among them.

The Rev. Marvis May, Macedonia's pastor, is the man who should be credited with having the African Children's Choir perform in Baltimore.

"I heard about them from a friend, who told me, `Man, if they're ever in your area, you've got to hear them,'" May said. He made some calls and got his church on the group's list of stops. They were scheduled to perform at the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew in Silver Spring the other night and have an engagement to sing at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

The choir couldn't have appeared at a more appropriate time for Macedonia's congregation.

"It just happens we'll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our own Youth Choir," said Vernita Ford, the business manager of Macedonia's children's choir that is directed by Terri Boyer.

Choir 21 was scheduled to arrive in Baltimore around 2 p.m. yesterday. A dinner at Macedonia was planned for the children and their chaperones, gathered from Africa, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The children and chaperones will stay with members of the Macedonia congregation. Such arrangements help Music for Life, the group that sponsors the African Children's Choir, keep costs down and ensure that donated dollars flow back to Africa.

The money "is used to feed and educate thousands of kids," O'Connor said. "The idea of the choirs is to bring hope to the suffering and helpless children."

For most kids in the choir, one or both of their parents is dead. All live in extreme poverty.

"It used to be that most lost their parents to war," O'Connor said. "Where these kids come from, it's more the poverty and malnutrition and the disease."

Money raised on concert tours is also used to set up schools "where kids get one good meal and education, two things these kids don't normally get," O'Connor said.

Additional bucks help those students who have left the choir - each group tours about one year - with their education when they return to their native countries. Some African Children's Choir veterans go on to college and study for degrees in medicine, engineering, teaching and other professions. Some members of the old choirs now act as chaperones for the new ones.

The African Children's Choir has performed on CBS This Morning, Good Morning, America, the Today Show and on the Essence Awards. So if you're in the mood on an early spring morning in Bawlmer, you might want to find your way to Macedonia Baptist Church for what promises to be a truly blessed occasion as some of Africa's children perform for their African-American cousins.

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