‘The best voices in the world’: Grammy-nominated African Children’s Choir visits Portland school

Posted March 03, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.
Last modified March 03, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — After two performances at Merrill Auditorium, the Grammy Award-nominated African Children’s Choir rode their tour bus to the East End Community School for a pizza party with the resident glee club Monday afternoon. Local students handed out whoopie pies, skipped rope and danced with the globetrotting African choir before they took turns singing at a schoolwide assembly.

East End Community School Principal Marcia Gendron said the chance for choir members to be part of an American school community — even if temporarily — is a rare break from their tour schedule and provides them exposure to the type of education not often seen in the war-torn countries they’ll ultimately be returning to.

Gendron said many of the diverse Portland school’s students are originally from Uganda, where the famous choir was founded.

“Many of our students come from Uganda, so this music is familiar to them culturally. It’s a nice connection for them,” she said. “We have African children coming today to see children from Africa now in an American school.”

The choir’s school visit — which comes in conjunction with Sunday and Monday performances at the city’s Merrill Auditorium organized by Portland Ovations — also offers a preview of sorts to the annual Portland Children’s Film Festival next month.

That event, also held at the East End school, will feature a rough cut of the documentary “Imba Means Sing” and an appearance by the Peabody and Emmy award-winning filmmaker behind it, Erin Levin.

The documentary has already been named “Best Social Impact Film-in-the-Making” by the prestigious Sundance Collective.

“The documentary ‘Imba Means Sing’ chronicles the journey of the choir over a two-year period, and some of those children from the film are here singing with the choir today,” Gendron said.

The African Children’s Choir is a group of more than 20 singers, ages 7-12, who live in extreme poverty in a range of African nations. The group’s performances and music sales raise money for schools, clinics and camps in their home countries.

The choir members were greeted Monday at the East End facility by a song in the lobby performed by the school’s glee club, followed by lunch with student ambassadors and a tour of the building. The event wrapped up with a school assembly featuring music by the African Children’s Choir and the East End glee club.

“It’s a nice exchange across continents,” Gendron said. “The children are clearly focused on aspirations and education and having a sense of hope — that’s very much the message of that choir, and that’s very much the message we try to give our students every day. That education is the best hope for the future, and that no matter what your background is, you can succeed.”

As choir members donned their coats and hats and headed back to the tour bus, someone called for a group hug. Portlanders squeezed their African counterparts in a knot of arms and faces.

“The best part was when they sang,” said East End glee club member Aalliyah Ferreira, 10, when it was over. “They sounded like the best voices in the world — better than Michael Jackson.”