It’s early afternoon on Saturday. The thermometer says it’s 92 degrees, and it’s humid. It feels even hotter inside the repurposed garage. A small box fan in the corner tries its best to move the air, struggling against the warmth of the nearly thirty bodies inside.
This is the Salvation Choir’s weekly practice for their biggest gig yet, Boulevardia.
Members of this group, which plays the music of the African diaspora including reggae and rumba, fled from violence in the Congo, moved to Tanzania and then Florida before settling in Kansas City.
The band started in 2019 and performs traditional gospel music at Messiah Lutheran Church in Independence every Sunday. Choirmaster Pastor John Wilondja leads the band, including seven of his children, along with various cousins, uncles, aunts and neighbors.
Since its beginning, the band has expanded. “We can do any style, but we mostly do seben, rumba and reggae,” says Jeune Premier Silambien, songwriter, guitarist, fellow choirmaster and son of John. Seben is a type of instrumental bridge played on electric guitar and is a central element of Congolese rumba.
“It’s a style we used to do in Africa,” says Lohi Wilondja, daughter of Pastor John. “Because if we compare, rumba and seben are different. Rumba is slow, and seben is a little bit fast. It’s a traditional style, but we combine all of them.”
Although they started as a gospel choir and still perform in church every Sunday, the Salvation Choir has expanded its audience by performing at bigger venues like The Ship and Boulevardia.
Philip Dickey, frontman of indie band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and stand-in manager for the Salvation Choir, describes the first time he heard them playing in the garage in their neighborhood in the historic Northeast: “It was like the first time I heard The Beatles. My wife was there and we just, like, looked at each other and our jaws dropped. This is the best music we’ve heard in our life.”
After their performance at The Ship in late May, Dickey recalls hearing an audience member saying, “I feel like a witness to the beginning of something legendary.”