COLUMBIA — Members of the African Children's Choir, a group of 7- to 11-year-olds who travel the world to perform, will be appearing in concerts Saturday and Sunday at two Columbia churches.
The choir is made up of two groups that tour North America simultaneously every year — this year's choirs are Choir 36 and Choir 37. Choir 37 will be performing in Columbia and is made up of 15 children: nine girls and six boys aged 8 to 10 years old, all from Uganda.
The two performances in Columbia will be held 7 p.m. Saturday in the Parkade Baptist Church sanctuary, 2102 North Garth Ave., and 7 p.m. Sunday at the auditorium in The Crossing, 3615 Southland Drive,. Both churches have had the African Children’s Choir perform before.
“Last time, we had a full house, which for us is about 1,100 people,” said Kay Fitzpatrick, assistant operations director for The Crossing. “This time we are setting up a room to accommodate for overflow, so people can watch on a big screen, just in case.”
The program includes a mix of African songs with some contemporary Christian music and gospel music with an African twist. The program is similar from year to year, but Jackie DiGennaro, tour leader for Choir 37, said there have been changes to keep it fresh for both the children and audiences who have seen it before.
DiGennaro said the choir hosts most of its concerts in churches because of the nature of the music it performs.
“We have a free will offering, and Christians give very well to our organization,” she said.
Halfway through each show, the children exit the stage and a video is shown featuring a former choir member from Kenya, now a lawyer, who speaks about what the choir meant to her. DiGennaro also speaks about recruiting volunteers.
“I certainly hope the performances we’ve done have been fruitful in harvesting interest in what we are doing,” DiGennaro said.
The children are chosen by a team of academic and music teachers in Africa who visit schools with which the organization has a connection. Teachers at the schools are asked to nominate children for whom joining the choir would make a significant economic difference.
DiGennaro said the children must be both musically gifted and physically and psychologically prepared to tour. While touring, they only do schoolwork three days each week. They have to keep up with the Ugandan school program because they take the same tests as their classmates back home.
DiGennaro said the children also speak English fluently, as some were taught English at the school they attended before touring, and others learned it in the past year.
“They have beautiful vocabularies and a really fun way with words,” DiGennaro said. “They have remarkable manners. When people meet them, they remark on how polite and respectful they are.”
Selected children spend about five months at the Choir Training Academy in Kampala, Uganda, where they learn music and dances and attend school and Sunday school. During this time, children get in the routine of touring, which includes waking up at a certain time, showering and practicing their performance.
A tour typically lasts for a year and begins in August, but some have been extended to accommodate extra performances. Tours usually occur in the U.S. and Canada but have frequently branched out to the United Kingdom.
A new choir is formed each year when the previous year's choir members return to their homes to attend school. Their education is funded by the African Children’s Choir.
The first choir was formed in 1984 and included children from Kampala and the Luwero district of Uganda. After training, choir members toured North American churches.
Since then, more than 700 children have participated in the choir program and have raised millions of dollars in the past 26 years, according to the choir's website. Choir donations fund education and rebuilding in African countries affected by famine, AIDS and war.
The choir has also been able to educate 6,500 children in seven African nations and has established schools and scholarships in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa.
The African Children’s Choir has accompanied performers such as Annie Lennox, Faith Hill and Josh Groban on American Idol’s Idol Gives Back show and has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Alberta Gilpin, director of education and ministry at Parkade Baptist Church, said six families from the church will be hosting choir members and chaperons at their homes Saturday night. The choir will attend services at Parkade Baptist on Sunday morning. Fitzpatrick said five families from The Crossing will also host choir members, and the group will hold academic classes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings in one of the classrooms at the church.
“I do hope people will come out in support of the choir,” DiGennaro said. “I think they are in for a wonderful night of entertainment, and I believe they will be blessed to be part of the audience.”