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Spirit of the West release charity single for AIDS orphans in Swaziland

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TORONTO - Vancouver folk-rock outfit Spirit of the West has released a charity single benefiting AIDS orphans in Swaziland, a song inspired by singer John Mann's repeat visits to the African country.

"Bulembu" will benefit an international charity of the same name, an organization that bought an abandoned mining town and reconstructed it into a safe haven for orphans, many of whom suffer from AIDS — Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV prevalence in the world, according to a United Nations report.

When Mann first visited the community in 2010, he was struck not only by the poverty he saw, but the spirit of the people. He began penning the hopeful track as soon as he boarded the airplane home.

"It's a very inspiring place," Mann said on the line from Vancouver in a recent telephone interview. "Our problems are nothing, they're absolutely nothing compared to what these people go through and many of these kids go through."

"The kids themselves are just, man, they absolutely break your heart."

The AIDS pandemic has crippled Swaziland, making it the only developing country in the world experiencing negative growth. As a result, the United Nations has cautioned that the long-term survival of the Swazi people could be seriously threatened.

Mann was so profoundly affected by his first visit, he didn't wait long to go back.

This past spring, he returned armed with portable recorders that he used to capture the Bulembu Children's Choir adding their voices to his rousing song, which was released to iTunes on Tuesday.

"The song is a wonderful memory, but what really does it for me is hearing the kids sing," he said. "They're incredible, wonderful singers."

Mann says he hopes that beyond paying to download the track, listeners might be inspired to try to help out in Swaziland — a country with a population of roughly 1.2 million people, but in which the UN estimates that 180,000 are living with HIV.

"Certainly, a large piece of my heart is there," Mann said.

Meanwhile, Mann says that he and Spirit of the West bandmate Geoffrey Kelly recently went on a "writing spree," and he's hoping that the band will get together in January to begin fleshing out the songs with the goal of releasing a new album — the band's first since 2004's "Star Trails."

For now though, Mann hopes fans are sated by "Bulembu."

"It's been a while since Spirit of the West has recorded, so hopefully there will be some interest, and more money will be made to help the kids," he said.

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