Sweet choir o'mine: Children on song for new movie

Sweet choir o'mine: Children on song for new movie
Ray Weeks/CNN
Thursday, August 8, 2013 - 8:34am

Angel may be in a foreign country without her family, but the eight-year-old Ugandan certainly isn't shy. "I like being on camera," she says. "I like it because it makes me feel like I can be president."

Angel is a member of the African Children's Choir, which is currently touring the United States, and she's on camera because the choir is the subject of a remarkable new documentary "Imba Means Sing."

The film shares the experiences of Angel, Moses and the rest of the choir, in five countries over two years.

Armed with incredible smiles, these children make you believe they've got the whole world in their hands. Almost all the kids come from the slums of Kampala, Uganda, and by traveling with the choir most of these children are getting an opportunity not only for a great education but also to be the main bread winners in their families.

Moses, nine, says: "(The) tour will change my life because I get to study more so that I can become what I want to be when I grow up. I didn't have many clothes and I didn't have many pairs of shoes and now I have them."

The Grammy-nominated African Children's Choir was started in 1984 by human rights activist Ray Barnett. Barnett was called on to help the thousands of children who had been orphaned and abandoned following years of conflict.

Barnett says: "I felt a choir of African children, who were very underprivileged, could show the world the beauty, dignity and unlimited ability of the African child so they could see what their help could do." The choir has successfully accomplished this for 28 years worldwide.

As the director and visionary for the nonprofit, Barnett developed the team into an internationally acclaimed performing group while raising funds to help many destitute children. To date, more than 1,000 vulnerable children have been through the choir program.

Funds from the choir have provided the opportunity of education and hope for many thousands like them in some of Africa's most impoverished areas. Some of the graduates have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers and even leaders in their countries.

According to Julia Tracy, the group's international choir director, the experience has not only raised future leaders for their home countries but has left an indelible mark on every nation in which they perform. For 20 years, she has watched their powerful performances be a force of inspiration and unity for countless audiences. She notes that this is one of the group's strengths. They effortlessly create a relationship with the community and "spread a different worldview," she says.

The film's producer, Erin Levin, first met the kids at a fundraising event in Madison Square Garden. Reflecting on the experience, Levin says, "I had always done this good stuff but never really had a reason to except that it was what I was taught ... and it made me feel good and I loved it. But, meeting these kids put a face and a heart and a name to everything."

At first, the journey of making Imba was a struggle. Levin says when she first arrived in Uganda to assess the production of the film she didn't have anyone to talk to. The girls in particular were shy and reluctant to talk with her. Angel and Moses are the stars of the film. The two were natural choices as they didn't hesitate to speak with Levin's crew. Now three years into production, Levin says most of the children speak English and can read and write in the Ugandan Luganda language.

The children have been grateful to participate in the group and continue to marvel at their experience.

"Being in the choir means I will have my school fees paid, because if I go to school I can be whatever I want when I grow up," says a young girl called Patience. "I need that to become a lawyer."

"The choir is going to change my life by giving us education," says choir member Kendrick.

But funding the movie has been a real struggle. So far Levin has raised $200,000. In addition to this, she still has to reach a goal of $400,000 -- of which she has only raised $200,000. Levin hopes the film will become a movement.

She says: "The issue it addresses is not just the African Children's Choir. It's much bigger than that. It's education. All the kids in the choir can't go to first or second grade. Then they tour the world and now their education is paid for through college so that is what we are shinning a light on."

Levin credits all her success to her crew: director Danielle Bernstein and director of photography Jason Maris. She is deservedly unabashed in how proud she is of their work. Her message to others: "Anyone can follow their dream and follow their heart. I am just a normal girl who believed in something and is going after it. And, I hope that people will see this and be inspired to do the same."

Imba Means Sing is due to premiere in 2014.

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By Meron Moges-Gerbi


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