When you watch the African Children’s Choir, you can’t help but smile — and sometimes even cry, Nate Longstaff said.
“It’s delighting to watch, and moving,” said Longstaff, a tour leader with the group that performs around the world. “People are often moved to tears because of the hope the children have and the background that they’re from.”
Longstaff, who hails from northeast London, is calling from Kalispell, the latest stop on the tour that began Jan. 14 in San Francisco. The choir will perform May 4 at First United Methodist Church in Billings.
The children’s choir is known for the upbeat African, spiritual and gospel music it sings and dances to and the colorful African outfits the children wear. The concert also features drum performances.
The group coming to Billings has 10 girls and 8 boys, ages 9 to 11, Longstaff said. Half are from Kampala, Uganda, and the other half are from Kabale, in the southwest corner of the country.
“The African Children’s Choir was founded on the basis that education and music can break the cycle of poverty,” Longstaff said.
Music for Life, the parent organization of the African Children’s Choir, works in seven African countries: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana and South Africa. Over the past 29 years, the organization has educated more than 52,000 children and helped more than 100,000 people through its relief and development programs.
The choir performs to raise money and gain sponsorships. Funds allow the organization to build schools and academies, HIV and AIDS centers and training facilities, as well as secure sponsorships for children to go to school.
“The charity has great testimonies from the children who have been to school through the organization,” Longstaff said. “They have high-position jobs or a high-status degree from university, so it’s a really great opportunity for the kids.”
Longstaff speaks from firsthand experience. Many years ago, when his own family saw the African Children’s Choir perform, his parents hosted two girls in their home and then went on to sponsor one of them.
The family grew close to the girl, who went on to complete her education. Eventually she came back to London for a visit, now as an adult chaperon with the children’s choir.
That connection inspired Longstaff to get involved with the organization, and he decided he wanted to be a chaperon. The tour he’s on will last at least a year, going from California to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana.
“Then we’re heading into North Dakota, then Alaska in August and then Washington, most likely in September,” Longstaff said.
The nine chaperons and 18 children ride on a bus from one tour stop to the next. On the road, they are hosted at each stop by churches and families.
The chaperons — guardians and mentors to the children — each have their own roles, Longstaff said, as teachers, administrators, choir directors, music coordinators, product managers, tour leaders and spokesmen.
“We each take part in ensuring the children are healthy, intellectually and spiritually growing, and we also have a lot of fun with them,” he said. “They’re children. They need fun.”
The youngsters, all who come from poor circumstances and many who have lost one or both parents, will return to school full time once they return home.
“They will be sponsored throughout their entire education and most likely through their university as well,” Longstaff said.
From difficult circumstances to a bright future, the children fill their performances with a hope and enthusiasm that touches audiences.
“That’s one of the most powerful aspects of a performance,” he said.