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Umoja choir unites those with diverse backgrounds, appears on national stage

Posted at 2:49 PM, Jan 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-04 10:32:44-05

When Dieudonne Manirakiza, one of the first Burundi refugees to resettle in Omaha started a choir eight years ago in an Omaha basement, his motives were simple. 

"Starting this choir, we never even thought about performing for even ten people,"  Manirakiza said. "The idea of the choir was actually somewhere to belong, somewhere to feel like home."

The songs are sung in native languages. The choir's name "Umoja," which is Swahili for unity and the members and backgrounds are as diverse as the music. 

Eric Esron's been in the choir for about seven years. He came to Omaha 10 years ago from Tanzania with his grandparent, aunt and uncle. His family, including his parents, are still in Africa.

"When I am here and my family is back there, sometimes I can feel like I am alone, the loneliness. But with the choir I feel like I have a family, I have friends," Esron said.  

Friends and singers that are now landing on a national stage. Laura Burhenn from The Mynabirds, a Washington D.C. turned Omaha recording artist, invited the choir members to record on her new album. They also visited DC with her to perform on the popular NPR  "Tiny Desk Concert" series.

"We felt like, I don't even know how to explain it," Esron recalled.  

Now, the Umoja choir is raising money to make their own album of songs they're written. The motive, still simple, share music with others.

"If you told me years ago, this is what we'd be doing, I would have said, no! I just want to do this in the basement. so our music has really shined the light. And surprisingly-we still don't sing in English," Manirakiza, said.

They hope to raise $7,000 to cover the recording costs.