A choir’s gorgeous sound can’t pay its way to Africa

Students from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., prepare to perform at a music festival in South Africa this summer. They have been practicing and fundraising all year but still haven’t reached their target funds. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
March 21, 2013

The sound is like velvet unfolding, big, gorgeous notes. It’s soaring ceilings, sunbeams through windows, the songs of angels.

“No! No! No!” yells Leona Lowery, screech-halting the gloriousness.

“Don’t get too happy, altos,” she pokes at one side of the risers.

“And not too chesty,” she jabs at the other side.

“I see heads down. I don’t understand,” she excoriates. “What are you waiting for? Me to levitate? I asked for a crescendo!”


The choir at Northwestern High School is trying to raise money to perform in South Africa. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This is choir practice at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. And for a moment, it feels like football hell week.

Lowery is a tyrant. For 15 years at Northwestern, she has demanded more than excellence from the choir. She wants perfection.

In front of her are nearly 50 teenagers. There are faux-hawks and braids, piercings and snarls. Stubble and wild, hell child ’80s eye shadow. And they all stand taller, more defiant as she berates them.

There are rewards for this. Northwestern is the only high school choir selected to represent the United States in the Ihlombe! South African Choral Festival this summer.

Wow. Flying all the way to Africa with 50 friends. Singing for the world. A dream come true, right? Except it would cost $100,000 for all of them — along with their music teachers and chaperons — to go.

“When she first told us about the trip, all I could be was sad. Because I knew we couldn’t go,” says Jasmine Cador, 17, a mezzo-soprano who plans to join the Navy when she graduates.

Between now and July, each student has to come up with $1,200. Might as well be a million for some of these kids.

Because this high school in Prince George’s County isn’t the kind of place where parents say, “Yippee!” and book the whole family to make a safari adventure out of it. These kids know what it is to struggle.

There’s the soprano whose family lost its $600 in savings when an uncle with no life insurance died and the relatives had to pay for his burial. There’s the baritone whose family’s finances are in crisis after a brother had another run-in with the law. There’s the soprano with nine siblings whose family just lost its home.

Nearly every member of the choir qualifies for a federal lunch subsidy — that’s code for kids who are on the edge of abject poverty.

“They live their lives in day-to-day struggles, roof-over-their-head kind of struggles,” Lowery says.

As they unspool the silken notes in a French song, “Dirait-on,” it’s easy to forget all that.

“C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse,” they sing, with a sublime bass anchoring the swirls of words in a sound so rich it seems that it will physically take shape any minute. “Se caresse, dirait-on, dirait-on.”

And then the screech of reality.

“I don’t want to hear ‘tahN!’ ” Lowery says, karate chopping. “It is dirait-ogh. No N.”

At 16 and 17, these kids are fighting to dream. So, few of them can even bring themselves to say, “We’re going to South Africa.” “If” is the word they all use before talking about it. “If we go.”

They have been baking, selling cookies, selling fruit, singing their hearts out for churches that give them some cash. They’ve managed to scrape together $40,000 in the past two years. They need $60,000 more. Their Facebook fundraising page asks for just $10 from each person who listens to their music and wants to help.

Off the stage, Lowery is actually very sweet. In the past 15 years, her choirs have won top honors in competitions in Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York and Toronto. They consistently earn ‘superior’ ratings — the highest any choir can earn. And they did so again at a state assessment just last week.

Three times the choir has been invited to perform abroad — in Prague, Vienna and London — and three times the choir’s finances prevented them from going. But South Africa is going to be different, the choir members hope.

Forty-one of the singers sent me a letter after I wrote about the six Prince George’s County high school students who had been fatally shot during the school year. They expressed frustration with the gun violence, but also with the portrayal of county teens “as victims or criminals. Because we are so much more than that!”

And, indeed, they are. Spending time with them, you get a taste of the inequity of their situation.

They have reached a level of greatness, but the ladders they were born with aren’t tall enough to get them all the way there. Twenty miles away, in another part of our incredibly affluent region, this simply wouldn’t happen.

The festival in South Africa showcases a dozen choirs that tour the country for 10 days. Most of the participants are from South Africa, with a few each year from other countries — maybe Belgium or Australia or the United States.

And this year from Hyattsville?

Most of the Northwestern choir’s kids have never been out of the United States or on an airplane or “even . . . left the state of Maryland,” Lowery says.

“To travel across the world and to be doing what I love, which is to sing, would be the trip of a lifetime,” wrote Cachet Farrar, a mezzo-soprano and one of about a dozen singers who sent letters of their own to me.

“It would be amazing. Something I never imagined I could do,” says Joshua Conner, who is 17 and working at McDonald’s to make it happen.

We can help them. Let’s send the Northwestern High School Choir to South Africa.

If every one of you who reads this — and everyone you tell about the choir — gives these kids your Starbucks allowance today, they’ll be on their way to Johannesburg.

Make out your check to Friends of NHS Choir and mail it to P.O. Box 185, Riverdale, Md. 20738.

And you will have helped change the lives of 50 young singers.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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