Beneath the African Sky

A girl. A story. A song.

For the composing team of Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory, inspiration usually comes in the form of a story that grabs them and won’t let go. Such was the case with “Beneath the African Sky”—a lullaby for a lost refugee girl that has become a cry for justice and a song of hope for children’s choruses around the world.

The story that inspired the song begins in Rwanda in 1994. Six-year-old Clemantine Wamariya is living in Kigali with her mother and father and her three siblings. She describes an idyllic childhood, climbing trees with friends and inventing imaginary games. 

Then everything changes. Decades of tension between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis erupts and Hutu militia groups begin to sweep through villages butchering any Tutsi that they encounter. Clemantine and her 15-year-old sister Claire escape to their grandparents’ home in the Rwandan countryside. But they are not out of danger. As the death squads draw near, Clemantine and Claire crawl out the bedroom window and run into a maize field. 

Now alone, the girls wander through the countryside. They crawl and hide and walk, finally arriving at a refugee camp in neighboring Burundi. There they are swept into a sea of refugees with no immediate access to shelter, food, or other supplies.

For the next six years, Clemantine and her sister shuttle between refugee camps in seven African countries, always looking for their parents and siblings. People are dying all around them, but they survive. In 2000, the International Organization for Migration helps the sisters immigrate to the United States. A year later, working through several international organizations, the sisters finally find out that their parents have also survived the genocide.

“I think that ‘Beneath the African Sky’ is a beautiful piece. When I sing it, I can really put myself in the little girl's shoes. It’s a sad and happy story that helps me sing while I try to show the audience how powerful this song can be.” ~Sunshine Harris, North Coast Singers Youth Chorus, age 10

Two Degrees of Separation

Paul Caldwell first heard about Clemantine from Mary Alice Miller, chair of the board of the Youth Choral Theater of Chicago where he is artistic director. Miller’s best friend, Liz Thomas, had sponsored Clemantine as she immigrated and had taken her into her family. Caldwell didn’t know much about the specifics of Clemantine’s story. No one did. As Clemantine tells it, that story was closed up tight inside her, too painful to talk about. 

But as she progressed through junior high school, Clemantine became aware that her story was not an isolated one, and that there were other bloody chapters in human history. Then in high school, she and her classmates were given the assignment to read Night, by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and write an essay about why the book was important. The assignment struck a chord with Clemantine. Weisel had a story to tell, she wrote, and if he was brave enough to tell it, then she too would find the courage to tell her story.

Clemantine’s essay was one of just 50 winners chosen from some 50,000 submissions to Oprah Winfrey’s National High School Essay Contest. In 2006, Clemantine and Claire appeared on the Oprah show, and at the end of the interview, Winfrey handed them a letter from their parents. “But you don’t have to read it now,” Winfrey said, “because your family is here.” Winfrey had arranged a reunion. Clemantine fell into the arms of her parents and her brother and sister—two new siblings who had been born during the 12 years she was separated from her family. 

From Anger to a Lullaby

Caldwell watched the video of that joyful reunion and knew he had to meet Clemantine in person. The two met at a Starbucks and talked for several hours. Caldwell walked away from that conversation deeply affected by Clemantine’s words about being targeted for extinction and then forgotten, lost, and desperate.

The first choral composition that emerged from that conversation was “Witness,” which Caldwell calls an “angry protest piece” with narration and chorus demanding an end to the mass killings that, even after Rwanda, were continuing to happen in places like Darfur. “The piece is jarring and upsetting, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Caldwell says. “It is an upsetting subject.” But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another, more personal, aspect of Clemantine’s story that needed to be told.


The National Children’s Festival Chorus during their performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall

Caldwell kept thinking about a song Clemantine had sung to him as they talked at the coffeehouse. It was a song that her mother had sung at the end of the day when the whole family gathered to pray. In the refugee camps, Clemantine and her sister sang it to each other, or Clemantine sang it to herself when her sister left the camp in search of food. “It was a ritual in my home to be grateful for the day as well as to give all of our worries to God,” Clemantine explains. “For me that’s what the song meant to me.” 

That song became the seed of a new choral piece, much more influenced by Clemantine’s experience living in refugee camps. Clemantine recalls those six years as a refugee as being even worse than the genocide itself. “You don’t belong anywhere,” she told Caldwell. “In the camp, it was a different death, death by food and death by drink and death by depression. Every time tick, you feel like you are dying. Imagine a kid thinking there is no world out there for you.”

When Robyn Lana approached Caldwell and Ivory about composing a piece for the Cincinnati Children's Choir, where she is managing artistic director, the timing felt right to Caldwell. "I have this thing I want to write," he told her, "but it is quiet. It's a lullaby."

“Sean and I are known as the guys who will write you something to get a standing ovation,” Caldwell says. “It has been hard to break out of that. It was very special to me that Robyn had the confidence in us to say, ‘No, I don’t need a closer. Write whatever you want.’” 

A Collaborative Composing Process

Caldwell and Ivory met in 1993, when Caldwell became director of the St. Cecilia Music Society in Grand Rapids, Michigan and took over the conducting of three youth choruses. Ivory, a music teacher at Forest Hills Central High School, was the accompanist for two of the choirs. Caldwell quickly learned that Ivory could do anything with a keyboard. “We used to experiment with the chorus,” Caldwell recalls. “I would have an idea of something. They would sing it. Sean would improvise the piano part. We found we worked well together.”


Ivory

It was a natural step to compose together. Typically Caldwell comes up with the idea—the story and the melodic theme. They talk it over, imagining together the shape of the piece. Caldwell produces the first draft and sends it to Ivory for him to “do his own magic.” Their collaboration has worked well over the years and over the miles—Caldwell moved to Chicago in 2001 while Ivory assumed leadership of the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus—and has produced some 30 works, many for children’s choruses.

“Every piece is different,” Ivory says. “Sometimes Paul gives me more of a sketch. Sometimes it is more complete with vocal parts. Sometimes I will go in with a scalpel and pull out something he did and add something of my own. Then I show it to him, and he tells me whether he likes it or not. Neither of us is the least bit shy about saying what he thinks.”


Caldwell

“Beneath the African Sky” evolved in much this way. Caldwell wrote the opening passage for solo oboe loosely based on the lullaby Clemantine had sung to comfort herself in the refugee camps. That oboe melody resurfaces throughout the piece, embellished by a choral tapestry with piano underlay.

Caldwell and Ivory pieces reflect a deep-held belief that choral music can be a gateway for teaching about some of the darkest periods of human history. Their works often address injustice and human tragedy—apartheid in South Africa, post-Katrina New Orleans, Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. “People in the human journey have sung, for as long as we know,” Caldwell says. “It was to express the most deeply meaningful things and to tell a story. For me, I am not interested in music that is not doing one of those things—either expressing something that is deeply felt and palpable or telling the stories of people.” 

“Anybody who knows the story could put themselves or their children in that position,” Ivory says of “Beneath the African Sky.” “We want people to empathize with this little girl because this is happening with many, many people all over the world, and it is tragic.”

A Piece with Personal Impact

“Beneath the African Sky,” performed in tandem with “Witness,” was premiered by the Cincinnati Children’s Choir in 2009. Learning the piece and performing it “had a huge impact on the kids,” Robyn Lana says. Using the program notes that Caldwell and Ivory provided and her own research, Lana talked with her singers about the Rwandan genocide, about Clemantine’s personal history, and about Paul’s personal connection to Clemantine. “This was not just somebody he read about,” she says. “It is a very deep personal connection. We brought that into our rehearsal room.” 

Several other children and youth choruses performed the piece during the summer of 2010 at the Sing a Mile High Children’s Choral Festival in Denver, where Caldwell is a resident conductor. San Diego’s North Coast Singers Youth Chorus was one of the choirs participating that year, and Sally Dean, its founding artistic director, says her singers immediately took “Beneath the African Sky” to heart. “In my 20 years, I don’t know of another song that has swept us away like this one,” Dean says.

 “'Beneath the African Sky' creates a landscape where people enter and pay attention to the story of Rwanda and pay attention to the plight of children in refugee camps in a way they wouldn’t if they didn’t experience the piece. The attitudinal shift and the awareness through the piece is the part that matters. The fact that it is vocally a nice piece…well, whatever. People leave the piece changed. That is what makes it special.” ~Paul Caldwell

Dean has not been shy about introducing her singers to music with difficult, dark themes. “I don’t know if all of the singers are able to imagine what it would be like to be in a genocide situation or refugee camp, but they do immediately, on their own terms, relate to a child who is afraid, a child who is lost,” she says.

After the festival, she programmed the piece in their regular concert season and the choir performed it for the San Diego Performing Arts League. Somewhere along the way, a local member of the Rotary Club heard it, and asked the choir to perform the piece at an international conference that drew Rotary leaders from around the world.

Jena Dickey, founder and artistic director of the Young Voices of Colorado, which hosts the Sing a Mile High Festival, also found that “Beneath the African Sky” had a certain “staying power” for her chorus. “Whenever we were asked to do a performance that was significant—lots of people, an important event, a national conference—that piece kept rising to the top time and time again,” she says. 

Caldwell estimates that the piece has been performed hundreds of times since its premiere. As recently as this past June, Caldwell and Ivory led its performance at a children’s choral festival in Costa Rica. Also in June, Barbara Berner, artistic director of the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, made “Beneath the African Sky” a centerpiece of Manhattan Concert Productions’ National Children’s Festival Chorus performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. 

“When I heard it, I thought this is a powerful way of helping children learn they can make a difference in the lives of everyone who hears them through song,” Berner says. There are many ways to tell a story, but Berner believes singing—and singing together—is one of the most powerful. 

“[A song] links the message of harmony with the text,” she says. “It also enables a group of people to tell the story as a unit, as one voice, to another group of people, the audience. It becomes a commonness of hope.”

A Song Comes Full Circle

Clemantine first heard a recording of the choral piece inspired by her story in 2009, the year she entered Yale University as a freshman. Her mother and father and siblings had just come to the United States. “My mom did not speak English at that time, but the song, she recognized it, too,” she says. “To be together now and to hear this song, the lullaby—it was a comfort, it was a prayer. It was beautiful in so many ways.”


Clemantine Wamariya with the Lower School Chorus of the North Shore Country Day School at a rehearsal of “Beneath the African Sky"

In 2012, Clemantine accepted an invitation to the North Shore Country Day School outside Chicago, the school she had attended for her ninth grade year. By that time, Clemantine’s youngest sister Claudette, and her niece Michelle, sister Claire’s youngest, also were in school there.

Linda Kiracibasi, the school’s music teacher, had introduced her third, fourth, and fifth graders to “Beneath the African Sky.” “They fell in love with it and with the story and took Clemantine into their heart and wanted to know more about her,” Kiracibasi says.

Clemantine came to a rehearsal in the days before the children performed the piece for the school’s spring concert. “It was the first time she had heard the song live,” Kiracibasi says. “She had tears, the kids had tears. It was an amazing experience for all.” 

What Clemantine remembers is how small the children were. “I was looking at them and they were not much older than I was [during the genocide],” she says. “It showed me how small I was. With your memory you don’t really think of yourself, your size.”

Now graduating from Yale with a degree in comparative literature, Clemantine says that her life’s mission is “to empower others to bring awareness to injustices and suffering of others and to inspire people to do something.” In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which governs the Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is the council's youngest member, serving alongside Elie Wiesel, who has so inspired her.

Clemantine hopes that her story can continue to make a positive impact. “Stories in whatever form they come can inspire people and connect people,” she says. “It is the only thing I want to do for the world. 

“I grew up in Rwanda and Africa, but the challenges to tackle are pretty much global. If I tell my story, then someone from the south side of Chicago may have a similar story. That is our world. And this song is being sung all over. And the kids are going to be ambassadors. That is my hope.”


Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and long-time choral singer based in San Francisco. She contributes regularly to The Voice and guest-edited the Spring 2013 Singing and Wellness issue.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2013.

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