What a week! Since first coming to Uganda in 2008 I have found it to be a place where things happen and magical interactions empower change and create joy. Singer songwriter Sara Hickman and myself, a lover of Africa and photographer, are visiting from Austin, Texas. I’m happy to have my 19 year-old daughter, Claire, a college student at University of Southern California with me too. I’ve been to Uganda many times and adore the people; I always knew Sara and Claire would love them too.
Sara Hickman’s music embodies the hope, love, gratitude and positive energy I see in Uganda and in its friendly, strong people. When I attended an African Children’s Choir concert in my home of Austin, Texas in 2001, I was compelled to sponsor 12-year-old Brenda Akello, now 23 and with me as I write this. That decision changed my life and I met her the first time in 2008 when I came here as a photographer with a medical team. Brenda and I have seen one another every time I visit, which has been once a year since then! She is the tie that first bound me to this special country-all a first step in my journey of love, service and involvement with the people of Uganda. Brenda is now a Senior University student studying non-profit and government development and ethics. She is a delightful, poised and responsible young lady, born in Lira, Northern Uganda. She and my daughter Claire, met for the first time on this trip, which is deeply gratifying for me. Claire was with me and only 6 yrs old, at that Choir concert and she and I both chose Brenda as our sponsored child.
Last January, we began the plans to record a special album with the Choir primary school children and teach various art projects at the training center and at The Choir outreach centers in Kampala. Choir director Julia Tracy, who lives in Austin, and Scott Lambie, Uganda development director, helped us line it all up for the last two weeks in July.
The last three days of recording this 30th anniversary musical project went well beyond expectations! About 40 Choir children, ACC staff in Austin and Uganda contributed. And, like the chorus of one of Sara’s songs that the children sang, this project made us more hopeful, faithful and grateful. Auntie Sara’s songs are perfect for the Choir’s mission of hope, strength and change for these lucky and deserving children. Her songs embody this spirit: “Don’t Give Up” and “Hopeful”, with another grace filled version of Chuck Brodsky’s “We are Each Other’s Angels”. Teen students Rachel and Godfrey, wrote two heartwarming songs that we recorded with their very best choir friends. One song they wrote has a phrase in the chorus: Love is a Journey of challenges…It certainly is and we made a long, meaningful journey to Uganda to engage with these special kids and this successful organisation, with the goals of loving and learning together.
Recording sessions began on Friday with three talented local student musicians, Price Kwagala, Sidney Kalanje and George Opio, and an accomplished recording engineer, Nelson Mahere. Their cultural instruments, such as adungu harps and a variety of drums, created an intense and rewarding experience in the makeshift studio in the lobby of the girls dorm. It has been a professional and passionate collaborative process across different cultures that will result in a musical work of art. The blending of the gentle children’s voices with Sara’s and the Ugandan adungu harps is simply beautiful.
Instant appreciation and camaraderie developed between Sara and the musicians and Nelson. Projects that I have attempted here in this special country, seem to work out – not without challenges – but I always witness excellence, perseverance and God’s grace. All of us have the same devotion, a connection I believe God wants us to have: to work together, get to know and love one another and form meaningful relationships. This new musical creation is evidence of the powerful bonding force of music. I have a saying, “God flies low to the ground in Uganda” and He has surely been with us the entire time in this extraordinary experience. English is a second language for these children and with their year long travel in the America and the UK, I’ve noticed that their English is excellent. That is one of the best educational benefits that the Choir gives these promising children. But our smiles are the one true universal language!
The children were prepared with their own songs and Sara’s too. There is nothing more precious to hear than children singing, especially with these lovely Ugandan accents. Music, spirituality and the strength learned through those bonds was and still is the promise and power that Choir founder Ray Barnett saw in these Ugandan children. Sara is a gifted musician who loves life, people and music with all her being. In the make-shift studio she is a natural teacher, giving the children tips on singing, using her humor, childlike energy and being the joyful creative artist I know as my friend. She entertained the children in a concert on the first day, and they laughed and sang with gusto.
I am deeply grateful for our friendship and to the Choir for allowing us to live out this dream. I photographed it all, which brings me deep satisfaction, so look for more photos on the CD.
The school staff built a bonfire on Sunday eve, the last night before we left to work with Choir 42, at the training center in Kampala. Watching the children dance and sing freely around the campfire was yet another enduring gift. The brightness of the flames beneath the stars in the African sky sparkled in a special way, embodying the deep and magical connections we felt. Sara will mix the CD in Austin, with recording engineer Mark Hallman. She did some pre-recording sessions before the trip with another sound engineer, Marty Lester. They will finish mastering the tracks and press the CD in time for release in early December with a fundraiser event Auntie Julia Tracy is throwing there with adorable Choir 42, who will also perform at mine and Sara’s church, Saint John’s United Methodist! Our many Austin friends and family are thrilled to see them, learn more and join in the celebration of this organization’s 30th Anniversary. Thank you for loving the African Children’s Choir…We can’t wait for you to hear our special musical creation! ☺