How I was in on the beginning of the joy-filled choir during a trip to Uganda with Ray Barnett
By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
LAKE FOREST, CA (ANS – December 7, 2015) – The infectious joy of the African Children’s Choir, formed initially from AIDS orphans, captured the hearts of the 200,000 people who packed Hyde Park, London, on Saturday, Saturday 2nd July, 2005. for the Live8 concert.
They performed on stage with stars like Paul McCartney, Bob Geldof, George Michael and Mariah Carey, and shone like lights from a continent that has seen so much pain in recent years.
This is one of many choirs founded by Ulster-born Ray Barnett, the head of Friends in the West, that have delighted crowds around the world – but this was their biggest appearance, as it was carried live on BBC 2 Television in the UK, AOL on the web, and MTV also featured portions of the concert in central London, one of many that day around the world focusing on poverty in Africa and organized by Bob Geldof.
Then a couple of years ago, they again made history by recording at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios in London. They may have been too young to know much about George, Paul, Ringo or John, but when the African Children’s Choir arrived, along with their founder, Ray Barnett, to record at Abbey Road Studios, they knew they had the privilege of being in a very special place.
Just as the Beatles produced music there in the sixties that impacted their generation, the Choir hoped their own music would make a big impact on the lives and living conditions of thousands of African children.
“The African Children’s Choir were delighted to be asked to accompany some tracks on the debut album of South African Opera Singer, Pumeza Matshikiza – one of the newest signings on London based label, Decca, who have recorded with opera stars like Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland,” said a spokesperson for the group.
Now, this wonderful choir is again back in the news, with a new documentary being released and shown across America called IMBA MEANS SING, which is an intimate character portrait and enchanting journey of Angel, Moses, and Nina – three children growing up in the slums of Uganda, unable to afford a basic education – who get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the world with the African Children’s Choir, raising support to put themselves through college.
The film features Nashville star Connie Britton, Spy Kids star Carla Gugino, country legend Big Kenny, and children’s music celebrity Randall Goodgame. Emmanuel Jal (War Child, The Good Lie, Blood Diamond, Girl Rising) and Stephen Nemeth (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, War Dance) are two of IMBA’S Executive Producers.
This stunning family-friendly film is not just about one organization. Angel, Moses and Nina are ambassadors for all the world’s children who do not have access to an education and who can use the power of music to uplift their lives. IMBA MEANS SING shines a light on these issues at large and can be leveraged to help your organization as well!
Celebrated creative activist Kathy Eldon calls it “A moving and entertaining film shot from a unique visual and narrative perspective – that of the children themselves.”
Media contact is: Lydia Sherwood, Presto Public Relations, 360 733-2149, email@example.com .
How the choir began:
The idea for the African Children’s Choir, which has since become a worldwide phenomenon, with its many choirs bringing joy wherever they have performed, began in the later 1970s, while I was in Uganda with Ray Barnett to research a book which chronicled the terrible reign of terror by “The Butcher of Uganda” – Idi Amin – a devoted Muslim.
This monster, who seized power in a military coup in 1971, and ruled over Uganda for 8 years, is said to have been responsible for the murders of some 300,000 Christians during his terrible period of vicious cruelty.
Winston Churchill visited Uganda and wrote a book in 1908 called “My African Journey” in which he said, “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa.’”
But by 1979, when Amin fled into exile — first to Libya and then to Saudi Arabia where he died in Jeddah on August 16, 2003 — his country had been reduced to a “Tarnished Pearl of Africa.”
I had known Ray for several years, and we met again in a smoky bar off Fleet Street, London [the then center of the British newspaper industry] called “The Stab in the Back.” Along with my colleagues, I was drunk as usual, when Ray, who had become deeply concerned at how far I had slipped from my earlier Christian faith, and wanted to help me rediscover my faith. (I had been born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and my father later became an Evangelical pastor in Birmingham, England, for some 30 years.)
An Irish-Canadian, Ray, who had founded a non-profit called Friends in the West, had previously taken me on a reporting trip to Russia, where we were held briefly under house arrest, and often looked me up when he was in London. He was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and later settled in British Columbia, Canada, was aware that I was desperately unhappy with my life as a tabloid reporter with the Sunday People newspaper and really wanted to help me get my life back on track with God.
So in that smoky bar filled with cynical London hacks, Ray shared with me the incredible story of the courageous Christians of Uganda who had survived the “Uganda Holocaust.” He explained about the terrible plight of the Uganda Christians, and then surprised me by challenging me to give my life and talents back to the Lord; quit my job and travel with him to Uganda to write a book on what had happened in that country.
His timing couldn’t have been better and that night I recommitted my life to the Lord, agreed to quit my job on the Sunday People, one of Britain’s largest circulation newspapers, and fly to Uganda with him to begin work on the book which was eventually published by Pickering and Inglis, a British publisher, and also by Zondervan in the United States. It was called “Uganda Holocaust.”
We flew from London to Nairobi in Kenya and then onto Entebbe Airport and as we were touching down, Ray turned to me and said, “Well, Dan, you’ve gone and done it now.”
I smiled wryly. “Yes, I have. You know, on the last day at the paper they had a reception and all the staff sang ‘All things bright and beautiful’ for me. I think they must have made history. I don’t think a hymn’s ever been sung in the Sunday People newsroom before.
“I’m glad I’m out, but it was quite a wrench. It was as if I had a ladder up to a building which was my career. I had crawled and scratched my way to the top and when I got there I discovered I had the ladder against the wrong building all the time….”
As the plane touched down on the runway at the battle-scarred airport, the passengers, mainly Ugandan refugees returning home, clapped joyously as the hostess said “Welcome home!”
World Vision had kindly agreed to provide the transportation for us to travel all over Uganda to research the book, and during that time we met some of the greatest Christians I had ever met. One day, as we bumped along the dusty roads, Ray spotted a young boy at the side of the road who appeared to need a lift, so he signaled the driver to stop and pick him up.
Soon, the boy began singing softly, and soon our van was filled with his blissful African music as he continued to give us a concert of some of songs he knew. I saw Ray’s face light up like a lamp, and I guessed that an idea was beginning to form in his mind. He told me later that the music had given him the thought about starting a choir of African children who could share the love of Jesus and the needs of the kids of Africa, who had seen nothing but poverty, starvation, injustice, disease, and violence.
Ray knew intuitively that people often get uncomfortable and tired of seeing depressing images. He knew that the way to really get inspired was to see the beauty and potential that exists in that darkness and despair and he knew the key was for people to meet the children face to face and hear their voices; hear their message of hope.
So, in 1984, Under his leadership, the first African Children’s Choir was formed and is now up to choir 43. Just think of it. Ray was so inspired by the singing of one small boy, he and his choirs have been able to show the world that Africa’s most vulnerable children have beauty, dignity and unlimited ability.
The various choirs have since gained international recognition, performing at Live8, at the House of Commons in London, and the Pentagon, in Washington, DC, and appearing at some of the world’s most prestigious halls, including The London Palladium, The International Club of Berlin and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
In 2008, The Choir sang for former President George W. Bush and recorded with Michael W. Smith. On 29 September 2009, the Choir celebrated their 25th Anniversary at the Hotel Vancouver in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where the Choir held their first performance 25 years before. Special guests at the event included Bob Geldof who used to live in Vancouver where he used to work for the Georgia Straight, Paul Rodgers and Michael McDonald.
Also in 2009, the Choir performed for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at Commenwealth Day in London, England. Alicia Keys sang with the Choir at Black Ball Gala. The Choir sang for US Global Leadership Coalition honoring former First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton. The Choir sang “All You Need is Love” for the Playing for Change Campaign.
In 2010, The Choir was featured on “A Christmas Cornucopia” with Annie Lenox.
Through his work with the Choir, Ray Barnett has been able to raise millions of dollars to establish numerous schools throughout Africa that serve children who would otherwise have no chance at an education. He has also been able to raise significant money for emergency relief and development programs in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda, and more recently to help orphaned children in South Africa who are battling hunger and disease.
Ray who now resides British Columbia, Canada, has been the subject of two television documentaries and has received numerous awards and honors for his work. These include the prestigious Cross of Nails, awarded by the Coventry Cathedral in England to recognize his widespread efforts to promote peace throughout the world, and the Heart of Gold Award bestowed by Esther Ranson at the BBC.
Want to find out more about Ray and his inspirational story? Follow his blog on his personal website at http://raybarnett.tv.
Photo captions: 1) The joy of some of the members of the African Children’s Choir. 2) Ray Barnett and the choir outside Abbey Road Studios.3) Choir logo. 4) Uganda Holocaust cover. 5) Dan and Ray with Tanzanian soldiers in Uganda around the time they met the young boy singer who inspired the formation of the African Children’s Choir. 6) More choir members. 7) Ray and Dan after arriving at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the author of some 45 books and has two TV programs and one radio show all based in Southern California.
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