Music as an uplifting force takes on new meaning after hearing and watching Zimbabwe's Liyana perform. Despite physical challenges ranging from spina bifida to congenital joint impairment, the eight-member group-ages 17-23-offers up a stirring and joyful mix of Afro-fusion that melts away their disabilities as soon as the first notes ring out.

Liyana (an Ndebele word meaning "it's raining" and symbolizes good luck) recently wrapped its first bi-coastal tour of the U.S., presented by the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus and co-produced by the PG Family Foundation in New York City. Playing songs from its first independent release "Sugar Rhythms," the group performed at several stops. These included San Francisco (macworld), Los Angeles (National Association of Music Merchants, House of Blues Foundation), New York (Columbia University Teachers College, Riverside Church) and Newark, NJ (Rutgers University, N.J. Performing Arts Center).

Together as a group since 2003, the members of Liyana first met as students at the King George VI School for the disabled. Serving as the group's mentor is school director Inez Hussey. Specializing in the marimbas, African drums, shakers, keyboards and piano, Liyana fuses various genres from gospel and reggae to traditional Zimbabwean Shona music. One of the group's most popular songs is "Umntwana weQhawe (Son of a Hero)."

Self-taught musically and writing most of their songs, the group not only performs in the Shona and Ndebele languages but five others as well: English, Dutch, German, Hebrew and Spanish. Two years after its formation, the group won the Crossroads Africa music festival in Mozambique. It has since toured Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands (

Crystal-voiced lead singer Prudence Mabhena is the group's most experienced member. The multi-talent-singer, songwriter, arranger, choreographer and lyricist-was a member of the award-winning Inkonjane group in 2002 and has performed with Mexican opera singer Encarnacion Vazquez. Mabhena suffers from joint-impairing arthrogryphosis, able only to move her head and a hand.

Despite the physical setbacks, "music changes everything," says Mabhena. "Singing brings joy and I feel honored to be doing it. Ms. Hussey showed us that disability does not mean inability."

Having graduated from King George VI, Liyana members still live on the school's premises. "They teach the other students about music," says Hussey. "We try to employ them all."

Sale proceeds from the current CD are used to help support the school. Hoping to eventually land a label deal, Liyana plans to record another CD. In the meantime, the group is the subject of a new Roger Ross Williams-directed documentary, "Ithemba." It's set for worldwide release in third quarter 2009.