Emmanuel Ssemwogerere, a 9-year-old from Kampala, Uganda, recently sang with Broadway stars Connie Britton, Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman.
While that “was fun,” he said by phone from New York City, what most amazed him during his first four weeks in this country were New York’s tall buildings and watching a robot clean floors.
Emmanuel is a member of African Children’s Choir, which launched its 35th annual tour of the United States in late May. He and the 15 other choir members will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Neffsville Mennonite Church, 2371 Lititz Pike. While the performance is free, an offering will be taken to help cover the tour’s costs.
The New York performance was part of the Changemakers 10th Anniversary Gala, which raises funds for Music For Life, the umbrella organization that funds the choir and covers education costs for choir members from primary school through college.
Among the songs they sang was “For Good,” which was dedicated to Ray Barnett — also known as “Daddy Ray” — who created the African Children’s Choir in 1984 to help Ugandan children orphaned during that nation’s six-year civil war. Barnett is retiring this year.
“It was so nice to sing,” Emmanuel said. “I liked the music we performed.”
This year’s Broadway-themed event brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization.
Then again, that’s nothing new for the choir. Past contingents have sung with the likes of Paul McCartney and Annie Lennox. They have performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the London Palladium and even at the Pentagon.
A year of touring
This year’s choir arrived in the United States in mid-May. It performed its first concert in early June in Watsontown, Northumberland County, and has been on the road ever since. The choir averages four concerts a week through January 2020, when the tour ends, manager Tina Sipp said.
The tour takes the 16 youths, ages 7 to 11, across a giant swath of the country, from New York to South Dakota to Texas and North Carolina.
“Whenever we’re putting a route together we kind of have a plan and just start calling churches in the area,” Sipp explained.
While touring, choir members are supporting 1,000 African children in schools in Africa.
“We support 35 different educational programs through the work of the choir,” Sipp said. “They’re just a thumbnail piece of the total number of children we’re able to help through the love offerings we take.”
Over the past 35 years, Music For Life has helped educate more than 52,000 children and impacted the lives of over 100,000 people through its relief and development programs.
“Music For Life’s purpose,” Sipp explained, “is to help create new leadership for tomorrow’s Africa, by focusing on education.”
Many past choir members have gone on to successful careers as doctors, attorneys, artists and teachers. One serves as a news commentator for the BBC in Kenya.
“We’ve had a chance over this long of a period of time to see children excel in a lot of different fields,” Sipp said.
“They do bring perspective, and they do bring change. And they have the tools to live differently and inspire that in the people around them.”
Churches pay a booking fee and donations from patrons help support the tour as well as fund educational programs in Africa.
Rashard Allen is familiar with the choir, which performed three times at Hempfield United Methodist Church when he was worship director there.
Allen, who is now music and worship director at Neffsville Mennonite Church, said past local performances have been well-received.
“People just rave about them,” he said. “People are floored by their passion, the beauty of their singing, the joy they exude and their faith.”
Added Sipp: “They bring a freshness of life that, I know, I needed, and I think maybe some of the Western world needs it, too.”
And the youths are open to experiencing new things, especially American food.
“I like burgers, hot dogs, french fries and KFC,” Emmauel said.
New choir each year
No matter how talented the singers and dancers are, there are no repeat performers.
“Each tour, it’s a new group of children,” Sipp said, “because part of the goal of this organization is to educate some of Africa’s most vulnerable children so they can help Africa tomorrow.”
This year’s program, titled “Just As I Am,” features a number of hymns with a twist.
“We have taken some familiar favorite hymns ... and we had a young artist in Uganda arrange the hymns in African beats,” Sipp said. “So it’s kind of this collision of familiar hymns with a little African twist to them.”
The hymns include “How Great Thou Art,” “Just as I am,” “Amazing Grace” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Said Sipp, who has been with the choir for 16 years, “To me, personally, I thinks it’s the best program we’ve ever done. The arrangements are just beautiful.”
Added Allen: “It’s a great night for the community. It’s not every day you get to hear a group with such a reputation doing a free concert.”