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The African Children’s Choir spread the gospel of unity

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The 2018 African Children’s Choir - SARAH WANYANA
  • Sarah Wanyana
  • The 2018 African Children’s Choir
Ever since Riverdance, Stomp and Taiko drum acts first took to the road, stage productions featuring exotic music, dance and costumery have been a staple on the touring concert circuit. African Children’s Choir concerts share those same creative components, but in a more intimate, authentic and ultimately illuminating way.

The most visible, and audible, outreach project of the organization Music for Life, the ever-changing congregation of 7- to 10-year-olds made its first tour of North America nearly 35 years ago, and has since racked up an extraordinary wealth of accomplishments: They’ve 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. They also won a Grammy Award.

But mostly, the African Children’s Choir play churches — hundreds of them, in fact, in dozens of countries, including their upcoming Aug. 5 performance at Colorado Springs’ Bethel Lutheran Church. When not performing, they attend free nearby 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 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 very diligently.”
Music for Life’s direct educational projects are primarily in Uganda and Kenya, countries that are both 85 percent Christian. Perhaps not surprisingly, the organization is Christian as well.

“Not all of our children that come out are from a church background,” says Sipp, “but yes, being a faith-based organization, we certainly want to raise them up in the teachings of Jesus Christ. I do think the culture makes it easier. The children are just very humble, they’re not entitled, they’re very appreciative and very thankful. They’re probably kind of what we used to be, you know? They’re not attached to gadgets and such, they’re creative in their play, 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 that will be 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. So there’s a nice African mix and thread throughout the program, and then African dance from the country they represent. There is a dance called the Can Dance, where they take some cans and they beat those rhythmically as well.”
Music for Life’s Tina Sipp shares a moment of bonding with this year’s choir members. - COURTESY OF THE AFRICAN CHILDREN’S CHOIR
  • Courtesy of The African Children’s Choir
  • Music for Life’s Tina Sipp shares a moment of bonding with this year’s choir members.

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

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 this 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 explains. “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. And then of course to be able to tell them, ‘You were the kids onstage when the Lord called me!’ So yeah, it’s a full circle, right?”

The same can be said, less fortunately, of the intolerance that has remained largely unchanged since Music for Life’s beginnings. In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement sheltered countless Central American refugees in U.S. churches. Three decades later, Washington’s highest-placed policymakers are portraying immigrants and refugees in the most demeaning ways imaginable.

“Yes, it’s disheartening to see such large-scale atrocities still happening, and I don’t have an explanation for that,” says Sipp, “other than that there is clearly evil in the world. You don’t have to look very far for that. But there is another way, and I want to walk in that.”

Sipp also believes that others will follow the same path, and that the children of the choir can help lead them in that direction.

“They’re just kids and they don’t know that they’re rocking the worlds of people in the audience,” says Sipp admiringly. “They’re just having a good time and eating ice cream.”

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