This story was changed at 9:45 a.m. 4/21/13 to correct the spelling of the first name of the choir director.
PORTLAND – When Gerard Nkunzimana moved to Maine two years ago, he missed the choir he sang in back in his native Burundi.
So the 32-year-old former high school French teacher joined Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Church on Sherman Street with the idea of getting his fellow African immigrants to follow suit.
“Which was very, very hard because few people speak English,” said Nkunzimana.
He finally persuaded several older women from Rwanda to join him and the existing members of the parish choir. Two years later the Les Voix des Anges choir has evolved in a 25-member ensemble made up mostly of singers from central African nations. They sing in four different languages, including French, which is spoken in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; Kirundi, which is spoken in Burundi; Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and English.
The choir has transformed the financially squeezed parish, which church leaders were ready to shut down, said Suzanne Proulx, choir director at the Roman Catholic church since 1990. Close to half of the faces singing at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sundays are African.
“We were on our way out. But over the course of the year, they could see the collaboration going on and they see it now as extremely vital,” said Proulx, referring to the church leaders.
Proulx said many of the choir members are gifted musicians who were serious worship leaders in their native countries, where music is a central part of life and worship. She said their music takes the form of call and response, something they might do while working.
She said when the Africans began to join the choir it caused some disruption. She lost some of the original choir members, who had trouble adapting to the somewhat chaotic African ways of rehearsal. But a year ago the group began to gel and the music has become integral to the service.
“The ones who stayed are the ones who embraced the transition and change,” said Proulx.
They are accompanied by two guitars, a flute, a piano, two sets of drums and the organ. When they break into Kirundi songs, the entire congregation starts clapping and swaying.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said the Rev. Greg Dube.
Getting the choir off the ground has been a project. Many of its members are newly arrived immigrants without transportation. Choir practice starts at 9 a.m. Sunday, but some of the singers are just slipping in after the Mass has started.
While the American members of the choir learn by reading the music, the African members learn by listening.
Kelly Nduwimana, 22, a native of Burundi, directs the African hymns. She said it can be difficult to get everyone singing in the same language.
Some of the music the group sings has arrived written by hand and sent via fax from choir members’ families back in their native countries. Sometimes Proulx will laboriously transcribe recordings of Nduwimana singing the songs, sometimes over the phone.
The result clearly delights parishioners, who clapped their appreciation at Sunday’s Mass, which featured French hymns.
“They add so much life and spirit to our parish,” said Rosemary Babcock of Portland, who likes to arrive early on Sundays with her husband, Robert Babcock, and listen to the choir practice.
Some of the choir members said the choir has changed the direction of their lives. Bob Bujakera, 23, who arrived in the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, originally settled in Rhode Island.
“Then I heard about the Mass and choir here,” said Bujakera.
Soon he was traveling to Portland from Rhode Island every weekend to sing in the choir. After two months, he decided to make Portland his home instead. The choir has performed at an assisted living center and has ambitions to perform at hospitals and other venues. There is talk of a Peaks Island performance this summer.
“Gerard is the one who is responsible for all this madness,” said Proulx.
Nkunzimana said he is glad the choir has given new life to the inner-city church.
“I just tried to make a contribution,” he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: