Adon Olam, Truly

A New CD Brings Together the Music of a Far-Flung Jewish Community

By Dimitri Ehrlich

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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One of the strange quirks of life in rural East Africa today is that while many communities lack electricity and running water, there are people with personal Web sites, e-mail and cellphones. And so it is that Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, an ethnomusicologist at Tufts University and the executive director of the university’s Hillel foundation, has managed to maintain contact with the Abayudaya, a small and little-known community of African Jews, whose music he recorded for the recently released “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).

The Abayudaya are a bush community in eastern Uganda comprising about 700 people whose ancestors converted to Judaism in 1919. (Abayudaya means “the Jewish people” in Luganda, the main language of Uganda.) Today, the Abayudaya walk an hour or two to the nearest town, Mbale, to Internet cafes where they e-mail messages halfway around the world to Summit, who is working on a Web site for the Smithsonian Institution, translating the community’s songs into English from the five dialects of Ugandan language in which they were recorded.

Indeed, upon first hearing “Abayudaya,” I did a double take: The voices and melodies are clearly African, but the words switch between Hebrew and the Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu, Bagwere and Banyole dialects. As reported in the Forward last January, the songs include familiar prayers such as “Adon Olam,” “Lecha Dodi” and “Hinei Ma Tov,” as well as Ugandan folk tunes, political songs and psalms.

The project began by chance. Summit is the author of “The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship” (Oxford University Press 2000), in which he explored various Jewish communities in the Boston area. Three years ago, a friend, Richard Sobel, contacted Summit with an unusual offer. Sobel, who had heard about the Abayudaya community while photographing the mountain gorillas of eastern Uganda, wanted an ethnomusicologist to come with him and record their music.

“‘Hey, I work with suburban Jews in America,’” Summit recalled telling his friend, who promptly played a cassette of Abayudaya singing “Lecha Dodi” and “Adon Olam.” Summit was overwhelmed: “‘I said, ‘When are we leaving?’”

“I’m interested in issues of how Jews construct their identity based on the melodies that they sing,” he explained. But part of the appeal of this particular subject was in exploring a Jewish world that almost nobody outside of Uganda — and indeed, many within the country — had never heard of, let alone heard.

Summit’s first encounter with the Abayudaya was in June 2000. He stayed for two weeks. “What I wanted to look at was: What music did they use liturgically? How did they compose the music?” he recalled, adding that the Abayudaya don’t have water, let alone the electricity needed for musical instruments. “They have a Casio keyboard that they run off of cheap Indian nickel cadmium batteries they buy for 30 cents at the local trading post. The batteries last an hour and a half, so they play the keyboard, and when the batteries run out, they send a kid down to buy another battery.”

Summit returned for a second visit to make a CD of their songs, but because the Abayudaya observe the prohibition against using electricity on the Sabbath, it was impossible to record their services. So he asked the congregants to assemble during the week, in a thatched hut on the grounds of the Mount Elgon Hotel, on the outskirts of Mbale, where the album was recorded.

Listening to “Abayudaya,” one is struck by the contradictory strains of ebullience, optimism and celebration in the voices, alongside a tenderness, fragility and pain that needs no translation. How did this small band of African Jews survive the murderous reign of Idi Amin, and how did they ever come to exist in the first place? For starters, it took a good deal of charisma, chutzpah and powers of persuasion to convince 3,000 adult men to undergo circumcision, but such was the conviction and zeal of Semei Kakungulu, the Ugandan military leader who founded the African nation’s only indigenous Jewish community in 1919.

Religious affiliation was commonly used as an instrument to divide and rule in Africa in the late 19th century, when Kakungulu, a military leader, was tapped by the British colonial powers to fight against Muslims and Roman Catholics in eastern Uganda. In exchange for converting to the Anglican Church, the British promised Kakungulu power over his own fiefdom. But when the British failed to make good on their word to empower him, Kakungulu rejected the Anglican Church and converted a second time, to a Protestant sect known as the Malakites, whose members observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, ate no pork and allowed polygamy. Kakungulu became increasingly strict in his reading of the Luganda translation of the Hebrew Bible and, one day in 1919, he circumcised himself and his sons. When the Malakites told him that only Jews practiced circumcision on the eighth day of life, Kakungulu is reported to have said, “If this is so, then from this day on, I am a Jew.” His followers soon joined him, and a new African Jewish community was born.

“Abayudaya” reflects the sporadic influences the community has absorbed, from contemporary Afro-pop and political songs, to the prayers taught by occasional travelers like a man known only as “Yusuf,” who, according to community elders, in 1926 provided the Abayudaya with their first contact with mainstream Jewry. He taught the community rudimentary Hebrew, the basics of keeping kosher and a few blessings. He also gave them their first Bible in Hebrew. Upon seeing it, legend says, the Abayudaya literally ripped all the Christian scriptures out of their missionary Bibles.

Eleven years later, they met another Jewish traveler, David Solomon, a Yemenite who furthered the Abayudaya’s Jewish education until he left Uganda in 1963. Around that time, Arye Oded, secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Uganda’s capital, arranged for Hebrew prayer books to be sent to the Abayudaya. But when Amin came to power in 1971, the Abayudaya’s contact with the outside world was severed after the dictator, who remained in power until 1979, forbade Jewish worship and closed all the synagogues.

The community fell on hard times and continues to eke out a living through subsistence farming. Many of the Abayudaya have never attended school because Uganda’s educational system was composed almost entirely of Christian missionary schools and required conversion. Today, among the 600 to 700 remaining Abayudaya people, there are five different synagogues, some of them no more than mud shacks.

“People ask, ‘Are these people Jewish?’” Summit said of the Abayudaya. “And when you spend time with them, not only can you tell from their prayers — they use more Hebrew in their liturgy than many liberal shuls in the United States — but they are very serious about their practice. They are strictly Shabbat observant — of course, they don’t have to worry about driving because they don’t have cars and electricity is not an issue. They wouldn’t characterize themselves as Orthodox because they want women to have a larger role. But if you say, what movement are they, they say, ‘We’re just Jewish.’”

Amen to that.

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