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June 2020
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2010-08 The power of music

a column written by James for the SligoWeekender

Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed anew the astounding power of music.

Music has been part of my life since as far back as I can remember, and has been my career for more than two decades. Yet its energy and force still has the capacity to sweep me off my feet, like an unexpected Tsunami of harmony and emotion.

My sixth trip to Kenya was slightly different in format to my previous trips, though every bit as memorable. Alongside Maeve Coghlan (Soprano), Martin Higgins (Baritone), Colm Henry (Piano) and the Children of Cheryls Childrens Home (, I was involved in six charity concerts at five Nairobi venues. The concerts once again were set up, publicised and masterminded by Gerry Cunningham from Calry, who works for the UN in Nairobi. The trip was operating under the wider umbrella of Sligos Kenya Build ( We also recorded Cheryls Childrens début 14-track CD.

In the audience at the Lord Erroll concert in Runda were some Korean and Kenyan musicians, who were themselves involved in a music project in one of Nairobis other large slums. We were cordially invited along to hear their children sing the following week.

Travelling across the vast sprawling city, risking our lives in Nairobis legendary lethal traffic, we arrived in the Dandora Slum to revisit that all-too-familiar sight of  blind beggars tapping on windows of stationary vehicles, hopeless hollow-eyed children vying for our attention and our coins, and that nightmarish, dusty, claustrophobic attack on all of our senses. I expect the experience that was to follow was further heightened by the setting.

We were welcomed at the large iron gates by Seung-Woo Lee (the Administrator), and escorted in to meet the children, their conductor Jeff, and accompanist Tiara. Forty barefoot children in tattered school uniforms stood poised to do what they do best, and love most   to sing! From the opening bars of the drum solo in the popular Swahili song Jambo Bwana, I was no longer in a Nairobi slum, but instead watching forty blissful children, without a care in the world, swaying in musical ecstacy, transported to another place a world away from their earthly hell.

And then, a solo boys voice - trained yet true - floored me as the words arose from some place deep within his soul&The sunll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow therell be sun&.  By the time all forty children had got to& I love ya tomorrow, youre always a day away&, I was rendered powerless by the unearthly might of music, coupled with the incongruity of the orphans  lyrics.  I bowed my head to avoid embarrassment, as tears trickled down my cheeks.

The Jirani Childrens Choir wowed us further with John Rutters Magnificat, again from memory. In a Kenyan national newspaper only days before I had been whirled into a blind fury when I learned that Kenyan MPs are officially the worlds richest. And so, as John Rutters melodies, harmonies and counterpoint  ricocheted off the corrugated tin roof, I tried not to focus too much on the Magnificats momentarily nauseating text &.such lines as He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. 

A few years previously, Dr Tae Jong Rim had watched as an abandoned boy  one of thousands - rummaged through rubbish in Dandora Slum. It appeared to him that that child, through no fault of his own, was literally a  piece of  the rubbish. No child ought to be mistaken for rubbish.

He never forgot that sight, and vowed to help instill hope and confidence into some of those slum children, through the power of music. The Jirani Childrens Choir was set up (Jirani is Swahili for good neighbour), and since then they have toured South Korea, the USA and elsewhere, increasing the awareness of the severe problems in Kenyan slums. Jirani are supported by CT construction company, and Yale University, amongst others. (

Music uplifts, motivates, heals, comforts, brings people together, and is the ultimate international language. Singing enriches the lives of those who participate, and those who listen. And yet, the Jirani children return at night to their slum homes - most without electricity and plumbing. But in the words of Berthold Auerbach& Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Somehow that quote rang more true than ever before that afternoon in Nairobis Dandora Slum.