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A Tanzanian refugee choir got its start in a Kansas City church. Now it's touring the Midwest

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
The Salvation Choir rehearses on Saturdays (and sometimes on Sundays) inside a garage in Kansas City's historic Northeast neighborhood.

The Salvation Choir, a Congolese Rumba band based in the historic Northeast, creates a community for Tanzanian refugees through song and dance.

Many members of the Salvation Choir made it to the United States and ultimately Kansas City after fleeing the armed conflict and violence in Congo.

"We leave Congo because there's no security for us, and then we moved to Tanzania," said Pierre Kung, vice president of the choir, who relocated to the Kansas City area a few years ago.

"To be in choir is to be encouraged," he said. "I'm happy to be in it."

The Salvation Choir started in 2019 with traditional gospel music at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Independence, Missouri, where it still performs on Sundays in the gymnasium (services are in Swahili, but an English translation is offered).

Since then, the group has expanded its repertoire to include rock and Rumba. It's also expanded its reach, traveling across the Midwest, including a recent show at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence, Kansas, and one this weekend at The Ship in the West Bottoms.

"We want other people to know us, who we are, and what we do," said songwriter Jeune Premier Silambien, 22, who's also a Penn Valley Community College student. "So that's our biggest dream."

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
A few of the members of Salvation Choir, including choir masters Jeune Premier Silambien and his father, Pastor John Wilondja (far right) get ready for a Saturday rehearsal. Wilondja has seven kids in the choir.

Silambien and his father, Pastor John Wilondja, lead the group as choirmasters. Their family moved to the United States in 2015, first to Florida, then to Missouri in 2018. Additional members of the choir include siblings, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors.

Pelo King Wilondja, 14, says he started singing at the age of six. An early memory from Tanzania, he said, is dancing "in front of a big audience (in an African village) and being nervous."

But he's gotten over his fears.

"So the idea of me being in a choir, I mean, it's the most exciting thing that ever happened to me," he said. "Plus you have like good people hanging around with you. You got family members, friends and stuff like that."

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Pastor John Wilondja (at right) checks a guitar before a Saturday rehearsal of the Salvation Choir.

Albertina Wilondja, 18, also sings and dances in the choir.

"Choir's like a family," she said. "We don't call each other names, we call each other brother, sister, you know. It's just all about love, it's not hate."

She added, "And if you want to join you can."

The Salvation Choir performs Saturday, May 28, at The Ship, 1221 Union Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, and on Saturday, June 18, at Boulevardia in Crown Center.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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