More than 1,100 fourth- through sixth-graders applauded enthusiastically this week after the South Africa-based Soweto Gospel Choir performed inspirational music at The Granada.
It was the first time students had been bussed to a special Granada concert since the pandemic started, said Celesta Billeci, executive director of UCSB Arts & Lectures, which presented the Thursday morning concert. The students came on buses from elementary schools in the Santa Barbara Unified and Goleta Union districts.
The Soweto Gospel Choir featured a couple dozen or so vocalists who sang with spirit in native African costumes and accented their music with dynamic dancing and powerful rhythms. The choir sings about issues such as civil rights and South Africa’s previous history with apartheid, but also expresses pure joy in songs like “This Little Light of Mine.”
At times, the choir stood still and embraced quiet strength in songs stressing rich tones and harmonies.
Whatever the mood of the song, you could see the connection with the kids. When the vocalists pantomimed some actions to go with their lyrics, some students pantomimed those actions back in return.
Ms. Billeci told the News-Press that the choir, which made its fourth appearance this week in a UCSB Arts & Lectures concert, is known for its stories of hope.
“They sing about civil rights. They sing about apartheid. They sing about deep and meaningful issues,” Ms. Billeci said outside The Granada. “At the same time, they’re bringing a lot of joy. They’re bringing uplifting music. Right now, we need that.
“Inspirational is the perfect word,” she said. “In our mantra for Arts & Lectures, it’s ‘educate, entertain and inspire.’ That’s exactly what the Soweto Gospel Choir does.”
“Hopefully the kids will walk out today and will talk about it all day long,” Ms. Billeci said. “They’ll remember this experience.
“We talk to these kids afterward,” Ms. Billeci said. “We get thank-you notes that say, ‘I want to be a dancer. I want to be a trumpet player.’ ”
One of the concert’s sponsors,told the News-Press why she felt the program was an important one for kids.
“It’s very important to expose young children to the arts,“ said Maxine Prisyon, whose William H. Kearns Foundation sponsored the concert. “This is an opportunity they might not have otherwise.” (Sponsors of the concert also included Audrey and Timothy Fisher.)
Shalon Edwards, a fifth-grade teacher at Santa Barbara Charter School, told the News-Press her students were excited to experience a cultural representation of South Africa. She said that before the Granada concert, her students watched the Soweto Gospel Choir on YouTube.
“The kids are really excited to be here because we’ve had limited field trips due to COVID the last three years,” Ms. Edwards said. (At Thursday’s performance, all the audience members wore masks.)
Erika Romer, one of the parents at Thursday’s concert, told the News-Press it was great for the children to be exposed to a culture they don’t normally encounter.
There are more special concerts ahead for elementary school students.
Ms. Billeci said that on Dec. 1, UCSB Arts & Lectures will bring 1,500 fourth- through sixth-graders to The Granada to hear ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who performed a few years ago at the auditorium.
“You know, in Santa Barbara, sixth-graders learn how to play the ukulele,” Ms. Billeci said. “It will be a great joy for them to see Jake.”