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Why an African children’s choir is singing in Hebrew

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The seven-singer choir posing proudly at Montreal's Israel Day Rally. (Dean Bye photo)

At Montreal’s Israel Day Rally on May 9, hardly anyone in the crowd understood why a group of African kids had just walked onstage and started singing in their local dialect. Audience members, confused, lowered their Israeli flags. Nobody sang along. It was a sunny and crisp day, perfect for celebrating 71 years of Israeli independence, and these kids seemed to dampen the mood.

Then they followed that song with a funky, African-inspired “Hinei Ma Tov”, sung in Hebrew, and the Israeli flags sprung back up. Nobody understood any better what was going on, but they were loving it.

If you ask Dean Bye, that was the point.

“It makes no sense,” says Bye, one of the organizers for the Sawuti Children’s Choir’s Canadian tour. Bye spoke to The CJN over the phone from Uganda, where he – a devout Christian – was fostering closer ties between the African nation and Israel.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know how some of this is happening,” Bye says. “But it’s really exciting to see how the Christian and Jewish communities are responding in Canada.”

The Christian choir’s foray into Jewish spaces is Bye’s project, uniting Christians and Jews behind a common goal: bringing Jews to Israel.

READ: SPRING’S ARRIVAL BRINGS THE SOUNDS OF YIDDISH TO THE CITY

It began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bye, a businessman, had a revelatory moment sparked by a quote from the Bible, Jeremiah 16:14, wherein God says He will no longer be known for bringing “the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,” but instead for bringing “the children of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where He had driven them.” The new destination? “I will restore them to their land that I gave to their forefathers.”

To Bye, who had never much read the Bible before, this was a clear sign. That line about the northland, he believed, was a blatant reference to the former Soviet Union. The time had come for Israelites to return to their homeland. In an instant, Bye became determined to help bring upon the return of the Messiah.

“When I read that scripture, it was game over for me,” Bye says. “That’s when life changed.”

He began working with Jews seeking aliyah, first in the former Soviet states and later in North America. By 2014, after he’d established Return Ministries, a non-proselytizing ministry that fosters co-operation between the two religions, he noticed a passage in Isaiah that referred to people bringing offerings from beyond “the rivers of Cush,” and connected that with Uganda. Bye believes that African nations are ravaged by poverty, famine and disease because they do not support Israel.

“It would only stand to reason that if we turn to Israel, we can bring a greater restoration and recovery to our nations,” he says. “And that includes Canada. It’s pivotal that Canadians understand what a blessing it is to be a blessing to Israel.”

Bye contacted a Christian friend, who had already assembled a long-standing children’s choir comprising mainly of  Ugandan kids.  They arranged a six-month tour, starting in Winnipeg in January (a culture shock for African kids who’d never set foot on a plane before), heading westward to Vancouver and circling back to hit up Montreal for Yom ha-Atzmaut and Toronto for Jewish Music Week.

To teach the kids Hebrew, Bye invited Daniel Yehuda, an Israeli musician who knew nothing about the project.

“I had three days,” Yehuda says, “and I had to create five songs for kids I never met in a country I’ve never been to.”

Yehuda brought snacks from Israel, including Bamba, tahini and several hundred cookies that his wife’s law firm was going to throw out before a weekend. But as it happened, he didn’t need the snacks.

“The minute I got to the city, I just sat with them, I sang a song to them, they sang a song to me, and there was immediate affection,” he says. “There was no moment where anyone questioned it – they all knew that’s what they wanted to do.”

That, some might say, is true harmony.

 

The Sawuti Children’s Choir will perform June 2, on Yom Yerushalayim, as part of Jewish Music Week. Tickets are free but required in advance: jewishmusicweek.com

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