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Ugandan kids a SXSW novelty

Choir's charity mission is first priority.

Michael Corcoran
For many performers, the choir is their family now, but they also benefit from activities with host families while on tour. Gift Kiconco rides a horse for the first time with host Paige Alam in Austin.

They smile; they dance; they sing; they vamp. But mostly they smile. The joy in the performances by the 22-member African gospel troupe could melt a code-enforcing fire marshal's cold, cold heart.

More than 1,900 acts from 55 countries will play the 24th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, which will officially kick off Wednesday. But even with such a huge number, it's safe to say that the most adorable group in the lineup is the Mwangaza Children's Choir from Uganda. The kids, ages 7 to 13, are sponsored by Africa Renewal Ministries, which is headquartered in Ggaba, Uganda, and has a U.S. office in San Antonio. The choir of 13 girls and nine boys is based in Texas during a six-month fundraising tour of churches, schools and auditoriums that began when they all took their first plane rides in January.

Some of these children, from five impoverished villages in southwestern Uganda, have been orphaned by war or disease, but the choir is their family now. Before a March 7 appearance at Tarrytown United Methodist Church, the kids spilled out of the three vans that take them around and walked arm in arm to the church. As always, laughter announced their arrival.

"These children represent all the needy children back home," said choir director Alex Buhooro, one of eight adults who travel with the choir. Uganda is one of the world's poorest countries, with about 75 percent of the population making less than a dollar a day.

When churches book Mwangaza, which means "shining light," they pay a suggested stipend of $500 and provide host families who take the kids and adults into their homes for up to four days. "The love we feel is magnificent," said Denis Musinguzi, 11, when asked what he likes best about the United States. "They treat us like their own family."

His first hosts had a dog that scared Denis, "so they took this dog that they love with all their hearts and put him outside so I would be without fear," he said.

Denis' first language is Runyankole, the common tongue of southwestern Uganda, yet his English is animated and often formal. Describing the plane ride to the U.S., he said it was thrilling to "gaze down upon all that God has created."

Although most performances are in front of congregations of 200 to 500 members, the opening set of the tour was in front of 1,200 people at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio.

"The kids were severely jet-lagged and pretty nervous, but they really came through," said tour director Caroline Page, a 24-year-old University of Texas graduate who was born and raised in Austin.

A few days later the children had a thrill when it snowed in San Antonio.

"They were all running outside with their tongues out trying to catch some flakes, having the best time," Page said.

The kids, who are part of a much larger choir back home, are happy to be here and sing a flag-waving "America the Beautiful" near the beginning of every show.

They perform with a purpose, gently urging members of their audiences to sponsor a child in Uganda for $35 a month to cover clothing, schooling, medical expenses and meals.

After the performance in the sanctuary at the Tarrytown United Methodist Church, parishioners pulled out their checkbooks to sponsor 12 young Ugandans. Several more took the literature and sent in their commitments later, Page said. The goal of the tour is to sponsor 1,500 children, but Page said, "We've got a long way to go."

The Mwangaza Children's Choir is unlike the other 560-plus international acts coming to SXSW in that the festival of discovery had nothing to do with why they're in Texas.

The group's SXSW showcase, at 8 p.m. Friday at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center's Boyd Vance Theatre, came about when Page asked fest music booker Matt Sonzala, a friend of a friend, if he thought the choir would work for SXSW.

"I wasn't sure it would fit, but Matt loved the idea," Page said.

The children's choir first toured the United States in 2004 and has been back three times. But the current group consists of all new members, assembled a year ago, as standouts at an ARM-sponsored festival of children's gospel choirs in Ggaba. Buhooro's choir from the Rukungiri District won the competition, but on the return home it was in a bus accident that took the lives of several riders (none of the children).

Buhooro was still in the hospital when representatives from ARM visited him and told him he was selected to be the choir director.

Like the kids, Buhooro had not been outside Uganda until January.

"We miss our home country, but we love the opportunity that America provides to help others in Uganda," said Buhooro, who directs the kids with a series of hand gestures.

The flutter of his fingers, for instance, means to step it up. The kids also watch the face of tutor and assistant choir director Grace Nakate, who stared darts at one point during the March 7 performance when a couple of kids looked lost onstage. They quickly found their places and beamed broadly.

"We think these kids have nothing, but they've got more joy and passion than most Americans," Page said. "They give me more each day than I give to them."