Northwestern choir only U.S. high school chosen for South Africa festival

by Rosanna Landis Weaver

Students from the award-winning choir at Northwestern at an after-school practice. The school's Visual and Performing Arts Academy program opened in August 2013. Photo courtesy Ken Carter.

Fundraising challenges remain

If all goes according to plan, on Sunday, July 14, students from the Northwestern High School Chorus will perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at a Soweto site that still bears bullet marks from its role in the struggle against apartheid.

The Ihlombe South African Choral Festival will open at historic Regina Mundi, the largest Catholic church in South Africa, once an anti-apartheid gathering place that later held hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Northwestern’s chorus, the only U.S high school chosen to participate, is working on a rendition of the 1899 song that will combine it with the African anthem. Yet before “the harmonies of liberty” described in James Weldon Johnson’s famous hymn can be achieved, there is a great deal of fundraising to accomplish.

Although students and parents have been raising money for over 16 months – with bake sales, fruit sales, and other hard work – community fundraising is behind schedule, fewer participants than expected signed up, and costs are higher than was anticipated. Despite these challenges the chorus is determined to attend the festival.

Chorus members discuss fundraising ideas at a meeting at Northwestern High School.  Photo courtesy Rosanna Landis Weaver.

Chorus members discuss fundraising ideas at a meeting at Northwestern High School. Photo courtesy Rosanna Landis Weaver.

“It’s going to happen,” says senior Joshua Conner, who has taken a job at McDonald’s to help earn his portion of the trip. “We’re going to make it happen.”

Conner works 30 hours a week, in addition to going to school full time and keeping up with the busy choir rehearsal schedule. “I haven’t missed a rehearsal yet,” he notes.

For Conner, who like most of the students has never traveled out of the country, this represents a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In 2010, when choir director Leona Lowery first heard of the program, she asked herself, “Can we dream a big dream?” In her 15 years at Northwestern, Lowery has taken the choir throughout the United States and to Canada, but never overseas. “The more I looked at [the Ihlombe Festival] the more fabulous it seemed.”

So, working with parents and students who were forming a nonprofit Friends of Northwestern Choir group, she put together an application package with a CD, video, photos and reviews. A few months later, she recalls, “I picked up the phone and heard a voice with a wonderful accent say, ‘Congratulations.’ ”

That voice belonged to South African Johan van Zyl of Classical Movements, a concert touring company that operates four international music festivals including Ihlombe.

The festival performs in five cities, including Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and includes opportunities to sing with traditional Cape Malay, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English choirs.

“Ihlombe” is a South African term that means “the ecstasy that comes from singing and dancing together.” The festival, now in its fourth year, aims to mingle cultures as well as voices.

“The joy of choral singing,” says Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, “is that when you bring people together from all around the world they make beautiful music.”

While Northwestern’s choir is the only high school choir that has been accepted to participate in the program from the United States, other adult choirs will be attending from both the United States and Australia. In addition, the Toronto Children’s choir will be coming from Canada, and the Bishop Anstey High School Choir from Trinidad Tobago. There will also be both children and adult choirs from South Africa.

The students feel honored to participate, and excited to represent their home. “PG County is not really recognized for a great many things, or a great many good things,” says Senior Victoria Okafer, who has performed with the Washington National Opera, “and this is something we can flaunt proudly.”

For the 15 years she has directed choir at Northwestern Lowery has strived to show her students the opportunities that can await them. “The world is bigger than PG County,” says Lowery. “These kids have got to see beyond their limits.” In addition, the eye opening look at South Africa’s history will grant perspective beyond the typical adolescent conversations about “tennis shoes, cell phones, Qdoba and PG Plaza.”

Ms. Lowery chokes up when she remembers an experience from some years back when a student who’d hardly ever been outside Hyattsville stared at Niagara Falls, tears running down his face, and told her. “Thank you, Ms. Lowery. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Fundraising Challenges

So far, 38 singers and seven adults have committed to the trip. The group has paid a deposit of $30,000, with nearly two-thirds of that coming from outside sources such as the Jim Henson Legacy.

But more than $100,000 remains in the outstanding balance. Initially, it was hoped that more students and alumni would participate. The cost per family has risen, since the original estimate was based on 70 travelers. Other costs, too, seem to be increasing: Just last month, the group learned that additional airline taxes and fuel surcharges amounted to an additional $540 each.

“Travel is one of the most enriching of all educational experiences,” notes Helms, “But it is expensive.” One reason Lowery opted to apply for a program three years away was so that there would be a longer window for fundraising. The downside of that has been that it has been difficult for teenagers to focus on something so far away.

Parent Joscelyn McFarlane, with two children who hope to attend the festival, senior Renaye and sophomore Jason, acknowledges that the amount to be raised is intimidating.

“The more the community can support the venture, the better the chance of their going,” he notes, adding that his congregation, Metropolitan Seventh Day Adventist Church at Riggs Road, has supported the family’s fundraising efforts. “We just definitely need everyone to do their part.”

Lowery is committed to making it happen. “There’s nothing sadder than seeing a child without a vision,” she notes. “These students are just constantly let down, [hearing] ‘You can’t do this.’ ‘We don’t have enough to do that.’”

The public is encouraged to attend two upcoming fundraising concerts: Soul Cafe, the annual Black History Month celebration, will be held at the school on February 20, at 7 p.m. On February 24 at 7 p.m. there will be a fundraising concert at Hyattsville Mennonite Church (4217 East West Highway) to be followed by a bake sale and a small silent auction.

To learn more about the chorus or contribute online, go to www.friendsofnhschoirs.org.

Rosanna Landis Weaver’s daughter belongs to the Northwestern High School Chorus.