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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Gael Shults leads the choir, which sings in five different languages.

The Japanese city of Hiroshima suffered tremendously from the effects of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. However, the message that comes out of the city some 60 years later is not one of hate and war, but one of peace and hope.

"They have taken the worst devastation you could know and have turned it into a beautiful garden. I love that," said Gael Shults, director of the Studio A Children's Choir based in Orem, who is taking a group from the choir to participate in the annual Flower Festival at Hiroshima, which runs from May 3-5.

The choir, which won the grand prize in the 2003 John Lennon "Dream Power" music competition in Japan (and got to meet with Yoko Ono), has ties to that country through Masa Fukuda, its co-director. But the story of how they came to be not only the first choir but also the first non-Japanese participants invited to sing at the festival's candle-lighting ceremony is a story of both improbability and hope all its own.

In many ways, said Shults, they did it because they didn't know they couldn't do it.

On one of their trips back from Japan after winning the Dream Power competition (they had to meet with Ono's management company about the release of a CD with their song), "I had an image in my head that I couldn't shake of us going to sing at the Hiroshima Peace Park. I told Masa that's what we should do — that we should be writing and singing world patriotic music that didn't focus on one country and we should go back and sing at Hiroshima, that we should sing with a Japanese choir."

At that time Shults had not even heard of the Flower Festival, which has been held annually for 50 years and is Japan's second-largest event.

Then Fukuda had to go back to Japan to renew his visa, and Shults met him in Japan in November. "His mother set up an interview with the Hiroshima people with us, but she told us it was too late in the game, that it would never happen. We met with the officials. I talked and Masa translated — I think that got their attention; they were curious about how we worked as a team. We found they had been looking for an international choir but didn't know how to find one. They also didn't have any money to pay for one to come. When we said we'd pay our own way, they invited us to the candle-lighting ceremony."

It was only later they found out what a huge deal that invitation was.

"Masa's mother had a friend who was floored. 'Do they have any idea what they have just done?' she asked. 'This is history in the making. Tell them what they have done, so they will have respect for it.'"

Fukuda and Shults had to write the songs they would sing and take them back in January to have them approved. The committee not only approved, "they got tears in their eyes," said Shults. To see those dignified, reserved men get emotional was a moving experience, she said.

That was for a song called "Hold on to Hope." The choir will also sing original songs called "You Can," "Flower Song," "Common Ground" and others — about a half hour's worth in all. And they will sing in five different languages — English, Japanese, Tongan, an African dialect and Spanish — languages that represent the ethnic background of some members of the choir.

Studio A Children's Choir, which is a holdover from the 2002 Winter Olympic Children's Choir, is a diverse group, said Shults. "We counted up 15 different countries that either the children or parents have had direct contact with. I think we represent every cultural group in Utah." The choir has approximately 100 members, ranging in age from 4 to 16.

For their performance at the Flower Festival, 15 members of the choir, ages 7-15, will be joined by two former members of the choir who now live in Japan. And they will also team up with a children's choir from Japan. Fukuda, who had come to Utah to study music at Brigham Young University, has been back in Japan working with the 18 members of that choir.

That, too, is an amazing story, said Shults. "They told us we would have to work through the schools to get a choir but that we would never find a school at this late date."

But working with a well-known Japanese vocal instructor, they did find a school from a low-income area of Osaka, "where they principal was willing to go out on a limb for us, because he knew it would be a self-esteem booster. And it has been."

Raising the funds for the trip has been a challenge, said Shults. "We did have a corporate sponsor lined up, but when the tsunami hit, they decided to redirect their funds to that. We can't argue with that, but it's meant that we've had to raise our money $10, $15 at a time. The kids have worked hard. They've sacrificed. Even the kids who aren't going have been out there supporting the kids who are."

Mostly, they've raised funds by selling copies of an earlier CD made by the choir at stands set up in front of Sam's Club.

That has been an amazing experience, said Christine Crandell, a mother who will accompany her daughter, Alyse, on the trip. "People would come up and say they wouldn't contribute because they supported dropping the bomb, and without batting an eye, our kids would say, 'But don't you support peace now?' One man came up who had been stationed in Hiroshima after the war to help with the rebuilding process. They kids sang for him, and he cried, and we cried. It's hard to put into words the deep emotion we've felt. But I have no doubt that every bit of work we've had to do will be worth it. Magic is going to happen."

And that's what it's all about, said Shults. "These kids know why they are going. They are not just going to eat sushi and see the tourist sites."

"Masa has taught us that if we sing with one voice, we can make a difference," said Alyse Crandell, 13. "We know we can make a difference, and that helps us sing. There is so much power in singing."

"We are singing really pretty songs," adds Melissa Gimenes, 12, another member of the choir. "We just hope people get the message, basically to have peace and not fight."

Adriana Turley, 13, is excited about "the culture thing. I'll be in a new culture for the first time. It will be so cool to meet the Japanese kids." What has been most exciting for her is that "there is a language barrier, but we've all been learning the same songs, so it's like we are the same at heart."

Deleise Varner, 15, knows this is "a once in a lifetime thing. I hope we can bring a feeling of peace to Japan, that we can be peaceful with each other so history won't repeat itself."

They are going to Hiroshima, but it's not about the bomb, said Shults. It's not about what happened 60 years ago, and whether it should or shouldn't have happened. It's about what's happening now, about finding good in the bad. It's about holding on to hope.

"It's been a really sweet process," she said. "These kids are carrying with them a sweet message. It's going to be fun to see where it goes."

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