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Unless you've seen them before, visited their website, or read their publicity releases, you might assume that the African Children's Choir, singing at the Arlington Baptist Church in Mint Hill, was a group of inner city Charlotte kids spreading their wings to the edge of Mecklenburg County and into the suburbs. I was quickly disabused of that notion when I walked into the assembly hall, which doubles as a cozy basketball arena. There were three tables at the rear of the hall, on the near side of the sound and video equipment, peddling merchandise and brochures, including one that was selling a generous selection of the dozen CDs that the Choir has recorded over the past 25 years.
It all began in 1984, according to their website – and one of the film breaks in the Children's Choir concert – during a visit to Uganda by human rights activist Ray Barnett, who was inspired to form the Choir "by the singing of one small boy." By the end of that year, the first Choir, made up of boys and girls aged 7-10, was touring North America. Many of the choristers had lost one or both parents amid Uganda's bloody civil war, and the entire first Choir had been born during the pernicious reign of Idi Amin. An overarching concern of Music for Life, the group that runs African Children's Choir, is the education and welfare of the children – and impacting the future of the continent – so Music for Life has established children's homes across the seven countries they serve.
Mint Hill was the fourth stop – and the fifth concert – on the 48th Choir's current 34-city, 40-concert tour, their last stop in North Carolina until the penultimate concert in Fayetteville on April 5. With just a couple of exceptions, the performances will be given in churches, so the format I witnessed is presumably typical. It began with lead pastor Rick Whittier offering an invocation and introducing choir director Alice Nambooze, who shifted focus from prayerful thanksgiving to firing up the audience so that we'd greet the 18-member Choir enthusiastically. Enthusiasm was certainly warranted, for the children were clad in unmistakably African costumes, free-flowing prints filled with bright yellow, red, and green accents. Opening with "Rejoice," the title song of their newest CD, the African Children's Choir matched the liveliness of their costumes with the joy of their singing.
The ebullient ensemble more than counterbalanced what you don't ordinarily encounter at adult choir concerts – appeals, collections, testimonials, and infomercials – with a multitude of energetic ingredients we should count on from grownups. All of these kids danced, banged on tin cans, rhythmically clapped hands, and twice changed costumes, a radical departure from the staid and colorless decorum that adult choirs with their dignified directors impose on us. Some of the kids beat on the drums, Africa's iconic instrument, some of them introduced the songs, some performed solo vocals, some interjected chants or recitations, and others hawked merch during the most charming commercial break. All of them – this was also adorable – introduced themselves. Nor was the music religiously live and a cappella. Prerecorded soundtracks for most of the selections helped keep the kids on the same beat.
Seated in front of the stage, Nambooze directed the children with a minimum of fuss, returning to the spotlight on just a few occasions, most notably to sing a lead vocal after launching a wake-up tableau and to preside over the more extended break halfway through the concert, when donations were asked. The head teacher who travels with the group, Timothy Kawuma, identified himself as "Uncle Timothy" and turned out to be the most bodacious drummer we would see. Kawuma and Nambooze also offered personal testimonies, linking themselves with the beginnings of the Children's Choir – when both were members of Choir 19 – and ending by proudly announcing the college business degrees they had earned, she in administration and he in statistics. Future of Africa.
The presentation in Mint Hill leaned heavily on tunes from the new CD and familiar old favorites, each of them delightfully Africanized. Very appropriately, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" was punctuated with handclaps – patty-cake style to add an extra childish tang leading into intermission. "Amazing Grace" was deceptively conventional through its opening stanza, but it grew suddenly catchy and I daresay groovy when the arrangement became a gleeful call-and-response. For their encore, the kids sang "This Little Light of Mine" with such celebratory gusto that I have to wonder how much longer it will be missing from their discography.
Songs from the newest album came with a little more zest in live performance, without any loss in choral richness. The glee-club energy of "Rejoice" showed harmonious maturity in its latter stages, but with only drums for accompaniment, the shorter "Njuba" took me more convincingly to Africa with rich harmonies resembling those of the famed Ladysmith Black Mambazo group – and with purely African lyrics. The other two newborns were more anthemic, mixing English and African into their lyric tapestries. "Our God" bounced along more jauntily, with more youthful exuberance, over a simpler soundtrack featuring guitar, keyboards, and percussion. "Cornerstone" started with an African refrain from the full chorus, breaking into English with a boy's solo vocal after a solemn instrumental vamp. The whole choir repeated the boy's stanza, presumably translated into African, before we reached the powerful "Christ alone, cornerstone" refrain. The arrangement kept building and, in the final repetitions of the refrain, the choir split in half, as the English "Cornerstone" chants overlapped the original African one. In a way, it capsulized what Barnett had set out to achieve 33 years ago.
With all the bright costuming, African percussion, and synthetic prerecorded sounds, Children's Choir still carved out a precious moment when the mood became sacred in a purely Western way. I couldn't find the African Children's Choir version of Psalm 139, but it's a very satisfying setting, discreetly stripped of the more bellicose – and unchildlike – verses between 1-18 and 23-24. There are so many lines and songs that sound strange or awkward coming from children. Others sound to us like something we already know, vividly refreshed. But the wonder and youthful hope of these lines, lifted and not let down by the melody and the widely smiling singers, reminded us of what is most unique and most cherished in the hearts of children.