OneVoice uses kid-powered music for social good

BY Larisa Epatko  October 24, 2013 at 9:17 AM EST

OneVoice founder and president Robbie Schaefer (in the background) plays guitar at an elementary school in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo by Kim Jackson for OneVoice.

Robbie Schaefer, guitarist and songwriter for the U.S. folk-rock band Eddie from Ohio, founded OneVoice in 2010 to bring children from different continents together through music. He soon realized it was an ever-evolving process.

“Like a lot of life-changing events, it wasn’t something I planned out carefully,” he said.

It all started in 2006 when Schaefer first heard the East African musician Samite Mulondo, who is from Uganda but now lives in New York. Schaefer was deeply moved by Mulondo’s music, a style that blends vocals, flute and kalimba, a hand-held piano shaped from a gourd. With research, he learned that Mulondo traveled back to Africa from time to time to play at refugee camps. “It was one of those light bulb moments, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I was meant to do,’” said Schaefer.

He reached out to the Ugandan artist and the two began to communicate. Mulondo urged Schaefer to visit Brain Tree Primary School in Kyanja in southern Uganda to test his musical exchange idea. The school had a pen-pal partnership with the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and Schaefer decided to try to deepen their connection through music.

Schaefer visited the school in Uganda just three weeks later, and recorded some songs with the students. It was a mutual learning experience. “I learned more songs from them than I taught them,” he said.

Schaefer brought back the recordings and played them for the students at Shipley, who recorded their own songs as well. He then blended the songs and turned them into a radio show for Sirius XM Radio, where he was director of children’s programming.

He thoroughly enjoyed the visits but found the process to be a bit clunky and the inclusion of a partner school to be too limiting.

The above video is of OneVoice’s visit to Rajasthan, India, and the song “Arriving Somewhere” that the trip inspired.

By the time Schaefer established the Vienna, Va.-based OneVoice in late 2010, he had honed the focus of the organization to three aspects: create, connect and act.

To work on bringing out children’s creativity, he brought along a music teacher, other musicians and an art teacher on the international visits. “It’s like a creative camp for a week,” he said.

And it was a nice reminder that creativity is accessible to all. “We all have it, whether you’re rich or poor, white or black, regardless of the food you eat or the language you speak,” said Schaefer. “Art is the best way to connect with that part of yourself.”

In 2011, Schaefer and his team visited Shepherd’s School in Arusha, Tanzania. The founder, Mama Lucy Kamptoni, had started the primary school in 2003 by selling chickens and it had grown to more than 400 students. She wanted to build a secondary school for the graduating students, but needed financial help.

The new Shepherd’s secondary school in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo by Kim Jackson.

So Schaefer started a fundraising campaign called LaLaLove that involved a music video contest and an invitation to donate. Many did contribute money, and the “kid-powered” campaign raised $27,000 to build the school.

That’s where “act”, the third aspect of the group’s mission, came into play — by putting the children’s creativity and connection into use in the world, Schaefer said.

In another visit in 2013, the group went to Rajasthan state in India to the Barmer desert, where only men play music and dance, even dressing in women’s costumes. OneVoice brought eight teenagers — both male and female — from the United States and other countries. Schaefer acted as “musical translator” for the first two days, but then decided to put two of the girls in the lead roles.

“It was amazing how quickly the Indian kids and adults accepted the girls,” he said. “What a profound thing.”

Musicians perform in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Natalie Hays Stewart.

Schaefer plans to refine OneVoice’s activities further in 2014 by expanding his international program to include not just music, but arts as a whole — music, art, dance, yoga, etc. And he hopes to build a virtual community online, called a “playground,” where screened subscribers can post their art and comment on others’ work. His next school visits in 2014 will take him back to India and then to Nicaragua.

Some of the challenges Schaefer said he faces include simply explaining what OneVoice does, since it doesn’t typically build schools or clean water like other more traditional nonprofits. “We’re still clarifying for ourselves what we’re doing,” he said. And fundraising is a constant process. The next event is Rocktoberfest on Oct. 27 in Lorton, Va.

“When we connect through music, there’s no more power dynamic,” Schaefer said of OneVoice’s overall mission. “It’s not white kids fixing black kids or rich kids fixing poor kids. Everybody’s all equal, we’re just singing to each other.”

View more Social Entrepreneurship profiles.