“I am volunteering,” said organist and conductor Helen Cha-Pyo. “For me, this is not a job. It is not a gig. It comes from a deeper place,” she says, speaking of her work with Kenya Jirani Ensemble and Harlem Jirani Ensemble, which will perform concerts together here Aug. 19-27.
Operatic soprano Diana Solomon-Glover is Harlem Jirani’s program coordinator. She brings all her professional experience to bear: a broadcasting degree from Northwestern, early work as a newscaster and performances in roles as Winnie Mandela in Chandler Carter’s “No Easy Walk to Freedom” to vocals for Zimbabwe band Liyana.
“I’ve been participating in social causes, using music as a tool to uplift, be proactive-and not reactive,” said Solomon-Glover. Jirani (“neighbor” in Swahili) represents a shift away from the “me first” mentality limiting our future potential.
For 24 brilliant Kenyan children from Korogocho-Dandora, the future is now. Recently recognized as the world’s single largest “slum,” it is home to the majority of Kenya Jirani singers.
Methodist missionary the Rev. Tae-Jong Rim watched a child feed himself from the Korogocho dump in 2005. That sight began the entire Jirani movement in his mind.
Now, Kenya Jirani, conducted by Kenyan Moses Omino, is in its fifth year, and a brand-new Harlem Jirani children’s choir, just now in its pilot season, will host them in Harlem at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20 at Salem United Methodist Church (211 W. 129th St.) and again Monday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. at the Interchurch Center (475 Riverside Drive). They’ll also perform in Queens, New Jersey and Connecticut. (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.)
“Jirani is about leadership,” said Solomon-Glover. “We use music as a tool to teach discipline and focus.”
“I start with the three Es of Harlem Jirani,” said Cha-Pyo. “Embrace who they are right now; empower the divine excellence in them…and only then equip them with the skills, those things they have to work for.”
The Jirani Cultural Organization, headquartered in Korea, is fostering a global network. Harlem charter members Cha-Pyo and the Revs. Allen Pinckney Jr. and Gunshik Shim signed on. “All these kids are striving to do the same things and recognize one another’s potential,” says Cha-Pyo.
“For young people, global leadership starts with self-identity and self-awareness-who they are in the current context but also the ability to envision themselves in the context of the future,” says Cha-Pyo. In other words, “If all you’ve ever seen is your village or your block, then you can think that’s all the world is,” says Solomon-Glover.
“Hopefully the Harlem kids will see that they can make a difference in Africa because they have friends in Africa. Rubbing elbows at this age already makes them global citizens,” said Cha-Pyo.
Board member the Rev. Eugene Palmore asked Harlem Jirani students about the experience. Sixth grader Alberys Peralta said, “I like that they’re giving us kids an opportunity to sing.”
Already an intellectual, 9-year-old Amaya Pastures likes “learning the new songs and learning what the new songs mean,” adding, “when the kids from Kenya come, I’m going to make sure that they are comfortable where they are and be friends.”
Sixth grader Chloe Niemann is excited to sing Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” with the Kenyans while 11-year-old Ian Aluns favored “Land of the Living,” Mark A. Miller’s composition commissioned by Cha-Pyo for the tour. She requested special parts be written for coronet, violin and percussion, using the kids’ instrumental talents as well.
Back in Korogocho-Dandora, 120 youth receive education and are uplifted through music six days a week, but after the eighth grade, when voices are deemed too mature for the Jirani “sound,” Jirani’s commitment to their education does not stop. Alumni who complete two tours in Korea or the United States are guaranteed, with good grades, continuance of educational funding. Currently, Jirani supports 35 students (former singers) in boarding schools throughout Kenya. Their very first senior, Lawrence, is class valedictorian. Jirani is covering his college tuition.
“When he speaks, you can tell he is already a leader,” beams Cha-Pyo.