When traveling to war-torn Uganda in the 1970s, the human rights activist Ray Barnett witnessed the horrors of dictator Idi Amin’s reign of terror: the gunfire from his death squads, the villages they torched, the crying of mothers whose children they killed.
He also heard the joyful singing of one little boy he was asked to drive across the country to safety.
Barnett decided the best way to bring the nation’s plight to the world’s attention was to harness the power of its children’s voices. Nearly 40 years later, Baltimoreans will have a chance to enjoy the music that has echoed across continents, raising millions of dollars for schools and orphanages in some of the most impoverished parts of Africa.
The 48th incarnation of the African Children’s Choir will take the stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday for a free concert at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore. The 18 boys and girls between seven and 10 years old, all from Uganda this year, will share African folk songs and contemporary Christian and gospel tunes.
“These children are always so lively and energetic,” said the Rev. Joe Muth, the pastor at St. Matthew, a church with parishioners from 45 countries that has hosted earlier incarnations of the choir. “It takes your breath away just watching them dance and sing. It’s such a beautiful experience it’s hard to explain in words.”
Music for Life, the nonprofit that operates the choir, chooses a new roster of performers each year, combing churches and communities in one or more of seven African nations, including Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Nigeria, for thoughtful, musically inclined children who have experienced the kinds of poverty, instability and, sometimes, brutality few Americans ever encounter.
The 18 to 24 children chosen from hundreds of aspirants are destined for experiences that will change their lives, and their performances alter thousands more.
The singers train for several months in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city and the site of Music for Life headquarters, then embark on a tour of North America, and sometimes Western Europe, that often includes more than 100 performances over a nine-month span.
They usually perform in churches, but previous incarnations of the choir have entertained at Royal Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, the United Nations, the Pentagon and the White House; appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “American Idol;” and performed with stars from Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey to the contemporary Christian vocalist Michael W. Smith.
Once they return home, the choir members receive a free education all the way through college.
Former choristers who might otherwise never have gone to school are now professionals in Africa working as doctors, teachers, journalists, business leaders and more, and the more than 1,000 people who have sung in the group have generated enough funds to build and run schools and orphanages that have served the needs of more than 100,000 children on the continent.
It takes your breath away just watching them dance and sing. It’s such a beautiful experience it’s hard to explain in words.
Rev. Joe Muth, the pastor at St. Matthew
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Organizers say the singers — many of whom have lost one or both parents to violence or disease — exemplify the beauty, dignity and talent of African children and provide a voice for millions of others who can’t speak for themselves.
“As our mission statement says, our whole goal is to help some of Africa's most vulnerable children today, so they can return and help Africa tomorrow,” said Amy Berry, a social worker from Tennessee who is serving as a chaperone on the current tour.
The chaperones — many of them alumni of the choir — keep the children up-to-date on school lessons between shows, serve as counselors and friends, and stay with them as they lodge with host families near their performance venues every night.
Alice Nambooze, 26, is one of seven chaperones this year. She grew up in the Luwero region of central Uganda, a place once dubbed Uganda’s “killing fields” for the savagery that happened there during guerrilla fighting in the 1980s.
After her father died, she lived with a grandfather who was already struggling to feed ten children.
She attended a school Music For Life had founded in the area, but it was two miles away, and Nambooze had so many morning chores she often got there too late or too tired to learn much.
Accepted into Choir 19 at age 8 in 2000, she remembers that at the group’s first major stop in Belfast, Northern Ireland, she saw so many things she’d never dreamed of before — tall buildings, efficient cars, smooth streets, crowded stores — that she walked into more than one signpost.
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But the bigger impact was how dramatically the tour — and her education — opened up her sense of possibilities.
She went on to graduate from Makerere University in Kampala with a degree in finance and now hopes to start a lending business in Uganda — a nation still ranked as one of the world’s 20 poorest — once this year’s tour is over.
The children sang “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light,” and “Njuda No Nomwezi” (“The Moon and the Sun” in Lugandan, one of Uganda’s major languages), among other songs, Wormley said, while dancing, and added to their “fantastic, energetic” performance by telling stories of their lives and sharing their long-term goals.
The children said they hoped to become airline pilots, engineers and hairdressers, he recalled.
“It was beautiful, and heart-wrenching, and so hopeful,” Wormley said.
The choir was to travel to Baltimore by bus Wednesday morning, take an afternoon break and hit the St. Matthew stage in the evening, where Muth said the choirs’ performances usually draw at least 500 people to its 800-seat space.
The show seems a natural fit for a church that sees its membership, as Muth puts it, as “a mosaic of the children of God,” but the priest said the concert is open to everyone, members of his parish or not.