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Kids from Africa bringing song and joy to SLO County

Watch a performance by the African Children's Choir

The African Children's Choir, singing here in Oregon, performs in Paso Robles on July 27, 2016.
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The African Children's Choir, singing here in Oregon, performs in Paso Robles on July 27, 2016.

At a time when growing nativism seems to be making many Americans more suspicious of other cultures, we will get a unique opportunity next week to broaden our horizons when the African Children’s Choir makes a stop in San Luis Obispo County.

It’s very likely I would know nothing about this group if not for a recent chance encounter in the Pacific Northwest.

At the same time we were on vacation at a hot springs resort in Oregon’s McKenzie River Valley in June, the kids were in town for a performance at the local high school.

The reason we were in the area at all was also coincidentally singing-related, as the Central Coast Children’s Choir, of which Little Miss High School Junior is a member, was participating in a festival in nearby Eugene.

So while she was rehearsing, we spent the time soaking in the pool at the Belknap Lodge and Hot Springs, which is where we saw posters announcing the African Children’s Choir concert.

It seemed to fit nicely with the week’s choir theme, so we went over to check them out.

The African Children’s Choir was founded by Canadian human rights activist Ray Barnett in 1984 as a way to help the youngest victims of Uganda’s bloody civil war.

He selected a group of orphaned and needy children with a special talent for music and formed the choir as a way to raise awareness to the plight of Africa’s most vulnerable residents. The children range in age from 7 to 10 years old, and many have lost one or both parents to famine, war or disease.

“We formed the first African Children’s Choir to show the world that Africa’s most vulnerable children have beauty, dignity and unlimited ability,” according to the group’s the website.

From that first choir, the program blossomed and grew, sending new editions out on tour each year. More than 1,000 children have performed in the various versions of the choir over nearly 30 years. In the process, the choir raises money through the Music for Life fundraising organization to build schools in Africa, where those efforts have helped to educate more than 52,000 kids.

In its concert, the choir sings a mix of spiritual and traditional African music, blended with drums, dancing, brightly colored costumes and, best of all, huge smiles.

The kids are a delight, with a level of poise and confidence far beyond their years.

This became even more apparent the day after the concert, when the whole group was invited over to the resort for a dip in the spring-fed pool.

“Can you teach me to swim, Uncle?” a girl named Desire asked me. I did the best I could in the short time we had, showing her how to kick her feet and hold her breath.

Engaging and outgoing, they bounced right up to us, asking our names and calling us “aunt” or “uncle,” which is how they refer to their choir leaders and chaperones.

“Can you teach me to swim, Uncle?” a girl named Desire asked me. I did the best I could in the short time we had, showing her how to kick her feet and hold her breath. They loved playing with the pool noodles, filling them with water and blowing fountains into the air.

After their swim, the group performed one last impromptu song in the lobby and then hugged each of us one by one, before lining up to board their bus and head off to the next stop.

The choir performs Wednesday, July 27, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Paso Robles.

Despite lives filled with tragedy, the kids radiate the resilience of young people just beginning to realize their potential.

In a world that more often seems filled with pain and death, they are a breath of fresh optimism and joy.

Joe Tarica is senior editor for The Tribune. 805-781-7911, jtarica@thetribunenews.com, @joetarica

African Children’s Choir concert

The choir performs at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 27, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Paso Robles. The concert is free, but donations are encouraged. For more information, call 238-3702 or visit www.africanchildrenschoir.com.

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