Have you heard of the Underground Boys of Tana? Recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning, this singing group from the slums of Madagascar has captivated the hearts of thousands in their hometown and millions via YouTube.
Driving through a Madagascar neighborhood one Sunday, Virginia Summers and her husband, John Miller (who works at the U.S. Embassy there) first heard “Jimmy” singing – and it was a song of thanks to God for his life. Not only did his sweet clear voice touch their hearts but also his profound sense of gratitude – particularly in a city where 80% of its people eke out a living on less than $2 a day. They tracked down Jimmy and learned that he had started an a cappella group with his friends. The boys didn’t have a stage, just the street, in a neighborhood so poor that after it rains, raw sewage flows down open pathways.
This part of town teems with chaotic activity, but when the singing starts, everyone stops what they’re doing to listen.
The boys, who are ages 11 to 16 and mostly related, are: Rija, Tojo, Taheri, Thierry, Aitra, Jimmy, Njato and Rivo. Asked how they learned to sing, Taheri shares, “I didn’t really learn it, I sort of inherited it from my family.”
With such tiny homes, life pours onto the little alleyways. Here, music provides a soundtrack to life, or an escape from it. And while not all exhibit the same raw talent, most do share unbridled enthusiasm – for music and for life.
Virginia and John were so struck by the boys’ talent, they began taking videos and posting them online. In less than a year, those videos had been viewed millions of times.
Nicole Bayer, one of Miller’s colleagues at the U.S. Embassy, saw a video of the boys and immediately recruited them to participate in an Embassy musical event she was coordinating.
And then, through a cultural exchange program called American Music Abroad, Bayer brought to Madagascar well known musician Fredo Austin, of the New York City based band, Freedom’s Boombox.
Austin mentors young musicians in about 50 countries, but marvels about the talent of these boys and how quickly they learn.
“One of the things that we incorporated into our workshops with them was beatboxing, which is mouth percussion,” said Austin. “And when you add that to their already amazing vocals, it’s just, ‘Wow! Oh my goodness. These kids are incredible!’
The workshops concluded with a concert, which was nationally televised. Video clips of the concert instantly went viral. Adds Bayer, “it really is a magical group.”
The boys dream of a record deal. But for now their lives really haven’t changed much, nor has one appointment they always keep. Each Sunday they walk about an hour from their slum to a hostel called the Underground, where they first met Virginia and John back in 2018. There the boys can make about $20 – a lot of money – and they always can count on at least two very enthusiastic fans. “Sunday’s my day for joy,” Virginia said, listening to the boys perform. “This is something that is so meaningful for us, to have a relationship with these boys. It’s something that they give to us, quite frankly.” And the boys – well they love how they feel when they’re singing – it gives them strength and a chance to dream.
What a beautiful story. Lives transformed by the joy of music. An opportunity for those with so little to dream big.
Are there people in your life that need just a little boost from you to have their lives transformed, their dreams launched? You might find your own life is transformed in the process, just like Virginia and John.
The greatness of caring….it’s in each one of us. Let’s find it and live it!