Interview November 17, 2007
In 1999, photo-journalist Richard Sobol heard a graduate student’s field recording of Jewish songs performed by Africans in Uganda. Sobol thought he knew Uganda pretty well, but Ugandan Jews? This was a surprise. Sobol soon returned, and the recordings he made on his own first visit later persuaded Jeffrey Summit—a rabbi and professor of ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University—to make the first of three research trips to Uganda as well. Sobol and Summit have done yeoman’s work in revealing this remarkable community to the world, and they have produced two excellent resources, which you can purchase by following these links: the coffee table book and CD, Abayudaya : The Jews of Uganda, (Abbeville Press Publishers), and the Grammy Award-nominated CD, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). The Abayudaya are the principle focus of the 2007 Afropop Worldwide program, “Jewish Communities of Sub-Saharan Africa.” For this program, Banning Eyre sat with Jeffrey Summit in his office at the Hillel Foundation at Tufts University for a wide-ranging discussion. What follows is a complete transcript of their interview, complemented by a selection of photographs from Richard Sobol’s book. All Photos by Richard Sobol B.E: Why don't you just start by introducing yourself and tell us how you came to the Abayudaya? J.S: Sure. My name is Jeffrey Summit, and I am the rabbi and executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Tufts University in Boston, where I'm also an associate professor in the Department of music. My main focus in ethnomusicology has been Jewish music, and issues of identity in the Jewish community. But when my dear friend Richard Sobol came back from working in East Africa, he had heard about this community, the Abayudaya, the Jewish people of Uganda, and he came to me and said, "Jeffrey, I need an ethnomusicologist on this project." I said, "Richard, I work with suburban Jews in Boston. I don't work in Africa." And he played a couple of examples on a small hand-held recorder that he had of their singing, and I said, "When do we leave? We have to go there." B.E: What was it about the music that made you have that reaction? J.S: Well, the singing is wonderfully engaging. Here were Africans who were Jewish, singing in local musical styles, but singing in Hebrew, and doing familiar hymns such as “Lekha Dodi” and “Adon Olam” that are very familiar in the Jewish world but they were singing it coming out of their tradition as Jews from Uganda. I've been back three times so far to work with the community and record and write about their music. In many ways, this project has been transformative, because it has opened up such a different way of looking at who Jews are, what Jews look like, what Jews sound like. That's what's been so engaging in the project. B.E: What can we say generally about the spectrum of Jewish experience in reality in Africa? J.S: It's difficult to unpack the story of who the Jews are in Africa. There presently exist, or have existed in the recent past, a number of indigenous groups throughout Africa, who identify themselves as Jewish, and also trace their lineage to the tribes of Israel. And yet, to discuss these communities together is extremely problematic in that their histories, their religious practices, and their traditions of descent show them to be quite different one from another. For example, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, who have immigrated to Israel at this point in their entirety, traditionally claimed descent from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Lemba, of Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, assert their Jewish lineage even while they practice as Christians. So too groups of Muslims in Timbuktu in Mali believe that they are descended from Jewish traders who settled in the area, as far back as the 15th century. Segments of the Igbo of Nigeria and the Sefwi people of Ghana trace their origins to Jews who traveled from Israel to West Africa, some dating back to the period following the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. The once vibrant Sephardic and Mizrahi of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, were established in North Africa approximately two millennia ago, but since 1948, the vast majority of North African Jews emigrated, settling in France, Israel, and the United States. Now, in contrast to these communities, the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, "Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root." Presently, the Abayudaya number of approximately 750 people, and live in villages surrounding Mbale in eastern Uganda. Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher, and pray in Hebrew. Since the community's original self conversion, and through the difficult period of Idi Amin's rule in the 1970s, the Abayudaya have been distinguished by their commitment to following mainstream Jewish practice, an approach that's been amplified since their increased contact with Jews from North America and Israel since the mid-1990s. B.E: We’ll get back to the Abayudaya shortly. But I want to understand these contrasts a little better first. When we speak of indigenous African Jews, it seems like the clearest history, and thus the least open to question, is that surrounding the Sephardic communities of North Africa. Would you agree? J.S: Well, they settled in North Africa up to two millennia ago, and the vibrant Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have developed rich and unique musical traditions. They only began to leave North Africa en masse after the formation of the State of Israel. The rise of Arab nationalism made it increasingly difficult for these Jewish communities to continue to thrive and live peacefully in North Africa. B.E: This leads to phenomena like the great Moroccan, Jewish singer Emil Zrihan singing with the Andalusian orchestra of Israel. But this is all very recent. J.S: Yes. These are communities that were very well integrated into the social fabric of these countries, in terms of language, in terms of commerce. Their music has drawn from local traditions, and yet is in many ways distinctly Jewish. To be honest, though, this is not my area of expertise. B.E: Okay. What about the Beta Israel? What more can we say about this fascinating Ethiopian community? J.S: The Beta Israel is a community with long Jewish roots, and long Jewish practice, but these were not Jews who followed the rabbinic tradition, the Talmudic dictates, and the commentaries in the Talmud that determined mainstream Jewish tradition over the years. So the Beta Israel in many ways followed more of a biblical Jewish tradition, and yet, after considerable discussion and debate in Israel, it was determined that the Beta Israel were members of the Jewish people, and even though there was controversy about their Jewish status, the religious establishment in Israel found a way to integrate them into the fabric of Jewish religious life. Now, the Beta Israel in Israel are integral members of the country, really at every level of society. And their presence and their music have increasing influence on Israeli popular culture and music. B.E: Witness the amazing career of Idan Raichel, an incredibly popular young musician who uses Ethiopian singers. Those singers are in Israel because of those mass airlifts organized by the state of Israel to transport the Ethiopian Jews. So we have these two very large migrations of Jews out of Africa, one starting after the formation of Israel, and the other from Ethiopia in the 1980s and 90s. And for our purposes today, we are distinguishing those two narratives from those we will focus on in this program, specifically the Abayudaya, and the Sefwi Jews in Ghana. J.S: One thing that really distinguishes the Abayudaya is that they talk proudly of their conversion to Jewish practice, and the way they were drawn to Jewish life by the truth of the Torah. They see Jewish practice and ritual and the teachings of the tradition to be a way to enrich and to deepen their lives. They don't talk about being a lost tribe, and they don't talk about long historical roots. They came to their religious identity through a process of intellect and faith and values they found to be compelling. B.E: You use the term conversion. What exactly does it take for a person from any background to be officially accepted as a Jew? J.S: There are two ways to be Jewish, according to traditional Judaism. One way is to be born of a Jewish mother. And the other way is to convert to Judaism. Now, we should be very clear that the Abayudaya's “conversion” to Judaism, originally, was not halakhic, which means a Jewish legal conversion. It was a self conversion. And the story that was told to me by Samson Mugombe—one of the leaders of the community who has since passed away, but who was a student and disciple of Semei Kakungulu—was that, when Semei Kakungulu studied Jewish tradition, and studied the Torah more, he said, "It says in the Torah that as Jews, we have to circumcise ourselves. Jews are circumcised on the eighth day." And the Protestants, the Malekites, who Kakungulu was part of at that time said, "It's only the Jews whose circumcise themselves.” And Kakungulu said, "Well, if that be the case, from this day on, I am a Jew." And he circumcised himself, and in the tradition of Abraham, the patriarch, he circumcised his sons, and soon, according to the community’s tradition, about 3000 members of his followers were circumcised in probably the largest mass conversion to Judaism in the history of the Jewish people. But something I should stress is even though the community self converted to Judaism in the early 1920s, they realized that they weren't recognized by the world's Jewish community because, technically, to go through conversion, you have to go through a conversion process with a beit din, a rabbinic court of three rabbis, and also, following the procedures of circumcision—now the Abayudaya were already circumcised, but you have to go through a process of symbolic circumcision to show the beit din that you went through this, and you also go to Mikva, which is immersion in water. Actually, the practice of baptism developed from the process of Mikva. And after this immersion in Mikva, in “living water,” the term is, and circumcision—or symbolic circumcision if you've been circumcised—then you are recognized by the Jewish people as Jewish. On my first visit to the community in 2000, the community were very interested to know how could they go through conversion that would be recognized by the rest of the Jewish people. They had been practicing as Jews, many of them for four generations, but they still very much wanted this recognition of world Jewry. And in fact, in the year 2002, a rabbinic court, a beit din made up of three Conservative rabbis and one Reform rabbi traveled to Uganda at the community’s invitation and did formal conversions for about half of the community members. The rabbinic court hopes to return to Uganda soon to conclude the rest of the conversions so that in the eyes of world jewelry, the community is Jewish. Now I should also add that Conservative conversions are not necessarily recognized by Orthodox Jewry. So, the Abayudaya status could be questioned by Orthodox Jewry, even as they would be recognized and embraced by Conservative and Reform Judaism. B.E: Fascinating. So this did not instantly open the door for them to, for example, go to Israel. But if that door were opened, do you think that some would want to go? J.S: I have spoken at length to members of the community about, "Did they want to go to Israel?" And many members of the community said they would love to go to Israel to visit, and to see Jerusalem, and the land of Israel. But one gentleman said to me, he was very, very happy in Uganda. He said, "There are Jews everywhere in the world. Why should there not be Jews in Uganda as well?" B.E: That's interesting. I think when we look at the Jews of North Africa, and also the Beta Israel, both of these groups had strong reasons to leave the places they were, more because of conditions in Africa than because they wanted to be in Israel. That may have been as much a part of their motivation as a desire to become part of the mainstream Jewish community. J.S: I think that the Abayudaya have always been marked by their interest and desire to connect with world Jewry. They have always been interested in mainstream practice. Even Semei Kakungulu in the 1920s, the first time that he met Jews, which was in the courts in Kampala—he was there on a land dispute; he owned some land around Makerere University. And when he met Jews who were merchants going through dispute in the courts, he was thrilled. He went up to them and said, according to the community lore, "You’re Jewish? I'm Jewish too." And he invited them back to his court in Mbale where he was very interested to learn mainstream traditions. And so these merchants taught him basic laws of keeping kosher, kosher slaughtering of animals, elementary blessings in Hebrew. These merchants presented the community with the first copy of the Bible, the Torah, written on both in English and in Hebrew, and over the years, the community has increasingly been interested in connecting to world Jewry and practicing mainstream. This was even carried on to Gershom Sizomu’s time. When Gershom came back to Uganda in 2002, after studying in New York, I was with him in the main synagogue and he announced to the community, "I have come back and I've brought with me tapes of singing the way that people chant and sing Jewish music in the United States." And the community applauded. And yet, at the same time, there were many discussions in the community about how important it is for the Abayudaya to maintain and continue Abayudaya traditions. I'll tell one story. I was with the community in 2002, right before their official conversion, and the discussions in the community were really interesting at that point, because here were people who had practiced as Jews, many for four generations. I was sitting in a meeting of the Abayudaya Leadership Council, and one member said, "I have a question. We are talking about conversion here, but I'm Jewish, my father was Jewish, my grandfather was Jewish. Can you tell me exactly what I am converting to?" And the leadership, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki, were very thoughtful here. They said, "We understand. We are not saying that we're not Jewish. But there are formalities that need to be practiced in order for us to be recognized by world Jewry.” So the community decided not to call this a “conversion.” Internally, they called it a “confirmation” of their Judaism. They were confirming their Jewish identity, but they felt that they had been Jewish since the initial conversion by Semei Kakungulu in the early 1920s. The community also talked a lot about what it meant to value their own traditions, even as they were very, very interested in learning about the traditions of the broader Jewish community. So we sat one night after the Sabbath was over, and Israel Siriri, who is now the president of the community, shared a Midrash, a rabbinic story that asks, "Why on Shabbat evening when parents bless their children, are sons blessed in the names of Ephraim and Menasha?” And the answer that the rabbinic tradition gives is that when Joseph's brothers were dwelling in Egypt, it was Ephraim and Menasha who steadfastly preserved and maintained Jewish tradition. So Israel Siriri explained, "Just as the Abayudaya proudly maintained their traditions during the persecutions of Idi Amin, and through all their struggles to establish their community, we should continue to sing and teach our own melodies, and our own traditions, that have strengthened us over the years." At that point, one of the other leaders, turned to me and said, "We need to sing our own traditional music. If not, what would be the need for you to come and see the Abayudaya? What would be the purpose? What would you be coming to learn? Nothing. Because we would be doing the same thing you are doing. And I doubt that God likes that." He said, "Why did God place some Jews in Uganda, and other Jews in America. I think the purpose was to create a more colorful world." Then Gershom Sizomu jumped into the conversation and said, "You know, we are one people, but like Jacob's coat, we are a coat of many colors.” B. E: Very nice. Here’s something I’m curious about. Was there a connection between circumcision as practiced in Jewish tradition and in any local African tradition? To start with, what was the ethnic background of Semei Kakungulu? And did that include circumcision? J.S: Semei Kakungulu was a Muganda, part of the Baganda people, and the Baganda do not circumcise traditionally. So for him to assert that he would follow the Jewish practice of circumcision was really a big break with traditional culture. The Bagisu people do circumcise, and Bagisu circumcision (imbalu) is a very important part of their culture. But the Bagisu circumcise their youths around the age of 15, 16, 17 years old, and it is seen as an act of coming into manhood and asserting one's manhood in a powerful way within the community. For the Baganda in the area, to look at circumcision as an imposed religious ritual that you carried out when a boy was eight days old was seen as a very foreign. So when Kakungulu embraced circumcision, it was clearly a break with local traditional culture. B.E: That is so interesting. And quite different than what I would have imagined. It makes the self-conversion all that much more surprising. Tell me this. What are the main ethnic groups represented among the Abayudaya? J.S: The Abayudaya are made up of five different language ethnic groups, Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu, Bagwere, and Banyole. Although, when I speak with members of the community, increasingly many say that they see the Abayudaya as one people. One of the members even said, "We see ourselves as one tribe," even though he knew that the word “tribe” is a colonial term that is not used much. Clearly, people will speak in the dialects of these different language ethnic groups when they are separate. When they come together, they will speak Luganda, the overarching, national language of Uganda. B.E: Is it anything like Swahili? J.S: No, it's not really related to Swahili. Swahili is not spoken that much in Uganda, not as much as in other East African countries. People do speak Swahili, especially the leadership of the community, but Luganda is the national language. B.E: In a way, it is kind of liberating that the Abayudaya do not make claims to Jewish roots. I read about a Batutsi claim where it felt like the spokespeople for the community were working very hard to make this kind of connection with the pre-Talmudic tribes of Israel. What do we really mean when we talk about the lost tribes of Israel? J.S: Jacob, the biblical patriarch Jacob, had 12 sons that formed the 12 tribes of Israel. 10 of those tribes disappear from the biblical account after the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and exile by the Assyrians, going back to approximately 700 B.C.E.. At that point these 10 tribes fall out of the biblical account and many of these lost communities of Jews now trace their roots back to those 10 tribes going back to these 10 of Jacob's 12 sons. B.E: But you don’t have to claim a connection to this history to be attracted to Jewish identity, do you? J.S: When we're talking about Jewish communities in Africa, it's probably helpful to talk about the tremendous power that Judaism has had as a tradition, especially in a world that is predominantly Muslim and Christian. In that Christianity and Islam both grow out of the Jewish tradition, many people have looked back at the Jewish tradition as a deep, rich well for spirituality and authenticity that has drawn many communities to go back and look at and explore their Jewish origins. I think we find this in many ways today, even from an interest in the Kabalah and Jewish mysticism to the whole question of how do people create an authentic identity. Judaism, which is a tradition that goes back at least 3000 years—though many people will say longer, depending on how they count the cosmology of Jewish tradition—has a special power that draws people to it. B.E: Let's get into the particulars of the Abayudaya community. How did it start? J.S: The story of the Abayudaya really started with this powerful Ganda leader, Semei Kakungulu, who around the turn of the century was enlisted by the British to fight their battles to take control over Uganda. Kakungulu was evangelized to the Anglican Church, and the British made him many promises. Kakungulu wanted to become a Kabaka, a king, of that region of East Africa. And the British reneged on promise after promise that they made, and finally Kakungulu rejected British colonial rule, and in doing so, he also rejected the Anglican Christianity that he had been evangelized to. But, as the community relates the story today, Kakungulu was so taken with the "Old Testament," or what Jews call the Hebrew Bible, that he said, "Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root?” And he began, after 1919, to follow a certain proto-Semitic tradition, really making up the Judaism that he was practicing through reading the Torah. And at this time he began to keep kosher and observed the Sabbath on Saturday. He really had his entourage, quite a large following, because he was a powerful leader, and they followed these practices too. What was interesting was Kakungulu's interest in following mainstream Jewish practice, and this has really marked the community's approach to Judaism since their inception. So when Kakungulu met Jews in Kampala, he quickly invited them back to his court where they taught him the basics of mainstream Jewish practice, how to keep kosher, how to say blessings in elementary Hebrew, the basics of Jewish prayer. Kakungulu’s wanted to bring the Abayudaya into the accepted ways of following Jewish practice. B.E: Help us set the scene here. What was going on in Uganda politically at this point? J.S: Well in the 1890s, the British were fighting with the Muslims and the Roman Catholics in the battles to control Uganda. Around the turn of the 20th century, from the 19th to the 20th century, religion was an effective way to create allies of local people, and to wage battles for political control. So for instance with the British, there were many advantages that came with conversion to Anglican Christianity—education; people went to school; people were economically helped. In Kakungulu's case, they were given firearms that increased their own power and prestige. Then they fought alongside the British against the different factions, specifically Muslim and Roman Catholic factions that were warring for control of different areas in East Africa. B.E: So, what was the significance of Kakungulu's conversion in this context? J.S: In many ways, Kakungulu's self conversion to Judaism was an act of rejection of the British. A rejection of colonialism. It was Kakungulu and his followers saying, "No longer will we followed your directions here. We are going to follow our own spiritual path." The British didn't know what to make of Kakungulu's Judaism. The book to read on this is Michael Twaddle's book, Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda—1868 to 1928. But basically, Kakungulu's adoption of Judaism was very much him going off on his own path, not only religiously but politically, asserting his separation from the British, who were totally identified with the Anglican Church. B.E: Kakungulu's act sort of short circuits the whole script that’s going on. You have Muslims fighting Roman Catholics, fighting Anglicans. Why not become Jewish? Let's talk about this from the African side. What was the relationship like between those various ethnic groups you mentioned in this area? J.S: I'm not exactly sure how to answer that. Uganda has always been a place where inter-ethnic conflict has been very intense. But I don't have a sense that these five ethnic groups, who are all Bantu, were specifically at odds with one another. It's my sense that the Abayudaya community grew out of these various groups of followers who attach themselves to Semei Kakungulu when he was a powerful military leader and an elephant hunter at the time also. The community grew out of families and kinship groups that had been part of Kakungulu's original entourage. B.E: And so on some level, when he then rejects their church and embraces Judaism, Kakungulu reasserts his own individuality. Would you buy that? J.S: He's breaking with their traditions. But remember, Kakungulu didn't say, "To hell with you British, I'm converting to Judaism." He rejected Anglican Christianity, but his next move away from Christianity was to a group of dissident Protestants called the Malakites. There was a leader, Malachi, who followed this dissident form of Protestantism that in many ways followed certain things in the Bible more to the letter. The Malakites observed Saturday as the Sabbath. They also interpreted certain verses in the Bible about not taking medicine, so they would take no medicine. And they very actively opposed the inoculation of people and cattle to diseases. This infuriated the British, who wanted to inoculate animals against a range of diseases. Kakungulu was part of the Malakites, but then, Kakungulu's study of the Torah lead him away from this Protestantism and deeper into true Jewish practice, and it was specifically Kakungulu's reading of the Hebrew Bible that led him to circumcision on the eighth day, and when he moved toward circumcision, that was when he broke with Malakites. They said, "You are no longer one of us. “If you do this, you will be a Jew." And he said, "Okay, from this day on, I am a Jew." B.E: How would you characterize the life of the Abayudaya between the late 20s and the rise of Idi Amin? J.S: After Kakungulu met these traders and Kampala in 1926, he invited them back to his court in Mbale, and it was at that point that the Abayudaya under Yusuf’s direction really abandoned key Christian beliefs. Because at that point, they were still practicing a form of Judaism that was really an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian beliefs. But at that point, the Abayudaya began to name their children after people in the Hebrew Bible. They no longer took names from the Christian Bible. They also, very powerfully, literally took their Bibles and ripped out the New Testament from their Bibles because at this point they said they only wanted to follow the Torah, the Hebrew scripture. But the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was a very difficult time for the community. No strong leadership emerged. They had contact with a few other Jews. In fact, there's a story, in 1937, the community met a Jew from Yemen, David Solomon, who was working on a water works project in Mbale. And the story is a good story. They say that David Solomon went out to hire people to work on this municipal project, and this one group of people came to him, and he said, "I want to hire you." And they said, "Yes, we are happy to be hired, but we have to tell you, we don't work on Saturday." He said, "You don't work on Saturday? Why?" And they said, "Because we’re Jewish." He said, "You are Jewish? I'm Jewish!” And in fact this was the Abayudaya, members of the community, and David Solomon created a friendship with them, and he actually arranged for Jewish calendars to be given to them. I have had members of the community tell me it was very interesting that the community had been so faithful to Jewish practice that even in the period from when Semei Kakungulu had begun to practice into the 1930s, they hadn't had Jewish calendars, but their following of the holidays was spot on to when the holidays actually were. So they had been very diligent in that time period. But that period of the 1930s, 40s and 50s was a time of economic difficulty. There were many struggles for succession and community leadership. There was a weakening of the community structure. And this was a difficult time for the community because during this time the only schools that the Abayudaya could have gone to were missionary schools. And in order to attend those schools, they basically had to leave their Jewish practice. They had to convert to Christianity. And generations of Abayudaya refused to be educated because they didn't want to give up on their traditions. They remained subsistence farmers during that time. And it was also a time when there was considerable anti-Semitism. The community talks about how they were ridiculed by local Christians and Muslims because they didn't light their cooking fires on Saturdays, and because they wouldn't go to missionary schools. But even though the community was very isolated during the 1940s, through radio and newspapers, the Abayudaya became aware of the emergence of the state of Israel. So they knew that this was happening, but they had no contact with the Jewish community then. And community elders told me that when Israel was declared a state in 1948, the community gathered and scanned the horizon outside of Mbale, waiting for airplanes to appear to transport them to Zion, because they believed that all the exiles were being gathered, and they prayed to be delivered from their isolation. But no one came. No one even knew about them at this point. Just recently, a couple of years ago, the first members of the community, the Abayudaya, visited Israel when Gershom Sizomu and his family, his wife and his daughter, went on to study in Jerusalem as part of the rabbinic program that Gershom is studying in. And in fact, their third child, their daughter, was born in Israel, so there's now actually an Abayudaya sabra, a native-born Israeli that is part of the community. But, in 1962, Arye Oded, who was the secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Kampala, visited the Abayudaya community, and at that point, things started to open up a bit. Arye Oded, who lives in Jerusalem now and who has remained connected with the community, helped them write letters to Jewish leadership in Israel, and in the United States to try to establish contact between the Abayudaya and world Jewry, and this began to come to a little bit of fruition in the 1960s, and some groups from the United States sent cartons of prayer books to the community, but this came to an abrupt end in 1971 when Idi Amin came to power in Uganda. Idi Amin’s rule was an especially difficult time for the community. Amin cut off all contact with Israel. He forbade the practice of what he called "little traditions," every other religious expression besides Islam. Basically, he closed synagogues, and he forbade the Abayudaya to gather for worship or for study. During that time Gershom Sizomo said, "It felt like my faith was being strangled by the president." The community couldn't gather for worship. There's a cave where the community members would come together to worship, quite a distance from Nabogoya Hill. There had been 36 synagogues in the community. After Amin’s reign was over, in 1979, only five synagogues remained. During that time, they couldn't gather in the synagogues, and so they would worship in secret. Gershom tells a story of when his father built a sukka, a small hut that is used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. And neighbors reported him to the police, and he was just about to be taken off to jail. He was taken to jail, and he was only saved because they bribed the authorities with a couple of goats for his release. But it was a dangerous time. And really, the only reason that the Abayudaya survived Amin’s rule is that they were far away from Kampala. They kind of flew in under the radar, and they kept a very, very low profile. B.E: And their numbers were quite radically reduced during that time, isn't that right? J.S: Yes, during that time, the community dwindled to as few as 300 members. But it was worse than that. Not only had the numbers of Abayudaya decreased radically, but also, so many of the traditions and the songs and the practices of the community had been lost. Gershom tells a story where a member of the community died, and they bore the person to his grave, Gershom says, "like a dog." Because they didn't even know what rituals to follow and what songs to sing. B.E: Tell us who Gershom Sizomu is. J.S: Gershom Sizomu is the rabbi for the Abayudaya community. He is a tremendously charismatic leader, and right now, he is close to completing his rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism, one of the rabbinical schools of the Conservative movement. Gershom is a wonderful organizer and a talented musician as well. He composed many of the songs that are signature songs for the community, and he does a wonderful job of including and bridging different divisions, and bringing the Abayudaya together because the community is quite diverse. B.E: And he's still a young man, isn't he? J.S: He is in his 40s. B.E: Tell us who J.J. Keki is. J.S: J.J. Keki is Gershom Sizomu’s brother. J.J. is a talented musician who composed a number of the pieces that are on the Smithsonian Folkways CD. He also was the director of the Abayudaya choir that sang in the synagogue. And here’s something interesting. J.J. Keki is the only Jew that I know who has been elected to political office in East Africa. He was elected to be chairman of Nyamanyoni sub county. And there's an amazing story about how J.J. came to be elected. J.J. had run for the chairmanship of Nyamanyoni sub county but was narrowly defeated in the election. And then, he was on a lecture tour to the United States in 2001. He was staying with me in 2001 in Boston, and he headed down to New York on September 11 to visit New York, and he was literally walking up with a friend who was going to show him the view of New York from the World Trade Center from the towers as the first plane hit the World Trade Center. J.J. called me up and said, "Jeffrey, look at the picture of the black man with the kippah, the yarmulke, running away from the towers. That's me!" JJ became the Ugandan on the scene of the World Trade Center disaster, and was interviewed by New Vision and The Monitor, the newspapers in Uganda. And when he returned to Uganda, this notoriety helped get them elected to the position when he ran again. That, and the fact that people believed that these contacts in the United States would be good for development, local development, which in fact they were. This was very meaningful because when J.J. returned to Uganda after 9/11, he felt very strongly about the importance of interfaith cooperation and communication. He saw the problems and the tremendous violence that could be caused coming out of 9/11, and when he went back, he continued to work in this area in Uganda, building strong relationships and connections between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. This led him to start the work of forming the Peace Kuomora, the fair trade coffee cooperative, together with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in California. And now, there are more than 700 farmers that are part of this Muslim, Jewish, Christian fair trade coffee cooperative in Nyamanyoni. B.E: And he's composing music for the cooperative, right? J.S: Not only is J.J. composing music, but many of the farmers are composing music, and this isn't music that is sung while picking coffee. This is music that the farmer sing to encourage other farmers to join the cooperative and to be involved in interfaith relations, and to stress the impact that fair trade prices could bring when it comes to educating their children, and really having adequate medical care. I have some of this music that I recorded in August, 2006 when I was back in Mbale during the coffee harvest. On one recent song, J.J. Keki and the Kuomora jazz band sing, "My brothers, children of my mother, all of you come together. Let's begin farming. Wake up and farm coffee, because coffee is what will bring us income." The coffee farmers are composing music in a variety of local styles, including mbaire xylophone playing. There are large women's choirs, who sing together. There are also musicians who play the ndingide, the tube fiddle and the nsasi, the shaker. There are farmers who play guitar like JJ in this piece. And there are also coffee farmers who play the mbaire, the xylophone, together with drums and shaker, the ngoma and the nsasi. B.E: Now, is this popular music for popular consumption, or is it circulated just within this community? J.S: This music serves the same function that music often serves in villages, and in village life in Uganda. This is music to educate the community. It is music to disseminate messages on public welfare. You know, in a rural village in Uganda, music is not only an effective way to get out a message, it is often the only way to spread a message. Here, the message is one of economic justice, and of the benefits that fair trade could bring to the local community. Planting coffee is an act of trust for subsistence farmers. Unless you can get a good price for your coffee, it is much better, much more profitable to plant food that you can eat. But here, the message that the farmers are sharing is a message about the economic benefits, and the benefits of education and health care that they could derive from the fair trade prices that are being brought in by the cooperative. B.E: Very interesting. And that dovetails nicely with the story we told on a recent program about Gregory Barz’s book and CD, Singing for Life, songs that educate people about HIV/AIDS. Let's talk about Nabogoya Hill, where the Abayudaya synagogue is. What is the history of this place? J.S: After Idi Amin left power in 1979, a group of the Abayudaya youth really set about to reclaim the area around Nabogoya Hill, the area where the Moses Synagogue is built. Originally, this land had belonged to Semei Kakungulu. It had been taken over by the local Anglican Church, but the Abayudaya really set out to not only reclaim this land, but also to reinvigorate the cultural and religious life that had been lost during Amin’s rule. Much of this transformation had to do with music. The leadership of the youth, among them Gershom, and J.J., and their brother Aaron, began to compose music to specifically encourage the community and the youth in the community to rejoin in worship and celebration. They started to compose a range of songs. After Idi Amin was deposed, a number of the youth formed a group that they actually called the Young Jewish Club, and the Young Jewish Club began to compose music for about 15 psalms. In order to make this worship accessible and to draw other youth into their activities, they sang the songs primarily in Luganda, although the community was studying Hebrew at that point. Many of these songs use traditional call-and-response in order to make participation easier. A good example of this would be "Psalm 126,” from the Smithsonian Folkways CD. The music was written by J.J. Keki, and the song is sung in Luganda. B.E: That’s the opening track, the one we hear in two versions, a cappella, and then with instrumental backing. J.S: Yeah, this was fun. This psalm, and a number of the psalms, are sung in different versions. Here the psalm is first presented as you would hear it in a Shabbat, in a Sabbath worship service, where the Abayudaya don't play instruments. They are more traditional and observe the prohibition against playing musical instruments on the Sabbath. But on a Saturday night, after the Sabbath is finished, it would be common to play this song with a number of instruments, and the community has guitars. They have drums. And there's also a Casio keyboard, which is ubiquitous throughout Africa, but here, a number of visitors have brought Casio keyboards, and a number of members of the community play them as well. This Psalm 136 is especially interesting because it talks about the exodus from Egypt, and the people of Israel achieving their liberation. J.J. Keki says he wrote this version of Psalm 136 right after Idi Amin was deposed, and he said, "It felt like we had been liberated." And so they connect the song with the end of Idi Amin’s rule. B.E: Did J.J. write additional lyrics for the psalm? J.S: Yes, he writes additional lyrics. B.E: Tell me about your very first experience among the Abayudaya. J.S: Being with the Abayudaya the first time I visited was a profound experience. It really started as I was standing with the community before Shabbat services began on Nabogoya Hill. And one of the leaders of the community, Michel, a patriarch, walked up the hill with a flowing caftan and a staff. As he walk up, I was eating an apple that I had from the Sabena flight over, and I cut off part of the apple and gave it to him. And before he ate the apple, he asked me where this fruit grew. I said it was from a tree, and he made the traditional Hebrew blessing for a fruit that grew from a tree, baray priha aitz. Then he said the blessing that you see when you eat a fruit for the first time, and he said that blessing and he ate the fruit. And I thought, "Oh, I'm in the presence of an extraordinary Jewish community!” What was so moving and interesting about being in this community for Shabbat, for Sabbath services, was that in many ways, the music was so uniquely African, and at the same time the text and the spiritual focus of the music was so familiar. It felt both wonderfully different and wonderfully similar at the same time. B.E: Give us an overview of the varieties of music on the Smithsonian Folkways CD. J.S: Sure. It is common in Jewish communities to compose in musical styles that grow out of local traditions. So, one would expect that the musical traditions of the Abayudaya grew from local, Ugandan musical traditions. But to actually experience that on Shabbat brings a profound sense of how diverse the Jewish people really are. The Abayudaya's music of worship and religious celebration really bridges the five ethnic and language groups that comprise the community, Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu, Bagwere, and Banyole. This shared tradition of Jewish music that the community is composing increasingly causes the Abayudaya to see themselves as one people. Still, when we look more deeply at the communities' music, we see an expressive culture rooted in local musical forms and styles. And in aspects of daily life that they see as not conflicting with their Jewish identity, the Abayudaya continue to celebrate and sing in the traditions of their local language and ethnic groups. Yet even this traditional music has undergone transformation. Basoga ngoma, or drumming songs, are reframed to stress God's providence for the Abayudaya. Abayudaya who converted to Christianity during the persecution of Idi Amin compose contemporary folk songs accompanied by adungu, the nine string harp, and they reintroduced this music into Abayudaya community celebrations. One could ask, "What's Jewish about a Basoga drumming song?" Yet, if, as the ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs said, "Jewish music is music made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews," then a closer examination of these songs and their social context deepens our understanding of Abayudaya identity. Let's look at some of these specific songs, for instance the children's song, "I am a Soldier in the Army of the Lord." This Pentecostal Church song is very common in Christian communities in this area of Uganda, and yet, the Abayudaya wanted to use it because children love this song. The children's teachers wanted them to be able to use it in the Hadassah nursery school, but they wanted to make the song Jewish. So Aaron Kintu Moses, the headmaster of the school, added Hebrew versus Luganda verses in this song, so the children also sing, “An(i) hayal b’tzavah, Adonai,” “I am a soldier in the army of the Lord,” thus making this Pentecostal Christian song, Jewish. B.E: What about this Basoga drumming song? I see that it involves improvised lyrics. J.S: Right. These are lyrics improvised by Basiki Walugo, an Abayudaya elder in Namatumba, the community farthest away from the center of Abayudaya life on Nabagoya Hill. Now, among the Basoga, music accompanied by drumming is sung on many festive occasions such as weddings, public holidays, graduations. These songs would also be sung to welcome important visitors such as local politicians. In each case, the singer will improvise lyrics to suit the occasion. Here, on this recording, you hear Walugu is accompanied by three musicians. One plays a long, goblet shaped, snakeskin headed drum, the engalabe in Luganda. The second plays a short, laced drum, ngoma. The third plays nsasi, a gourd shaker. What is interesting here is the Abayudaya elder has added lyrics to this song specifically praising and speaking about the Abayudaya. He says, "People who have never known for the Abayudaya, it is time for them to understand. It is God who loves the land of Israel. God is loving us. God is still requesting that we should obey his word." B.E: How about the adungu harp? What do we know about its traditional use? J.S: There's been a renewed interest in the adungu in Uganda. The adungu originated in the west Nile, in the land of the Alur, but this style, Mawoni’s style of playing, is much more contemporary, using a seven tone scale rather than the older, traditional five- or six- note scale. The newer adungu tuning is common throughout Uganda right now. Ethnomusicologist James Mukubuya observes that this style sounds more like the music from the Longo or the Acholi in northern Uganda. Mawoni’s solo style is similar to the kidongo kamu, a style of solo performance by itinerant and rural musicians, accompanied by steel string guitar, and was popular in Uganda in the 1990s. What's interesting about the adungu too is, because it was an introduced instrument, it is free of many of the traditional constraints, and so people feel freer to compose new music on the adungu now. B.E: That makes it perfect for the Abayudaya's purposes, doesn't it? J.S: Yes, now this composition by Michael Mawoni tells of the fragility of life. The text is, "God creates, and then destroys. I don't know when I'll die. Death is powerful. While you walk, it follows you. I don't know where I'll be buried. Even if you board an airplane, death also boards. Even if you get into a car, death also gets in with you. Even if you ride on a bicycle, as you ride, it also arrives with you.” During Idi Amin's rule in the 1970s, many members of the Abayudaya converted to Christianity, and Mawoni’s family converted at that time, but he now lives together with his Jewish cousins in Nasenyi, in the Pallisa district, and remains close to them. In many of the contemporary compositions, he sings about the power of God, and the faith of the Abayudaya. When he reflected on the pressured conversions that happened during Amin’s reign, Gershom Sizomu said, “Yes, we have lost tribes of Israel. We have lost people who need to be reconnected." B.E: So there's been a feeling of Renaissance and the community since the fall of Amin. For a man who was forced to convert during Amin's time, but still relates to the community, there must be a complex sense of identity to juggle, right? J.S: Yes. These people live in one village together. And in one house, there are people who have remained Jewish, and right next to them are cousins who maybe years before converted to Christianity, but still see themselves as descendent from and very close to the Abayudaya. B.E: And this does not create conflict? J.S: In general, it doesn’t create conflict. People right now get on well with each other. There are religious issues that create conflict, specifically when groups come in to missionize the Jewish community. Evangelizing efforts have created tension among the Abayudaya. B.E: A few weeks ago, I was interviewing some Congolese musicians from Kasai, and the leader of the group was telling me that the thing they found the most difficult was when evangelists took their music, their sacred, traditional music, keeping the melody, the instruments, the rhythm, but taking out all the references to their history and past, and substituting in words about Jesus. This they found a real affront. Is there are any equivalent of that in the Abayudaya context? J.S: During the resurgence of the community in the early 1980s, it was very important for Abayudaya youth to compose music that wasn't overtly Christian, and they listened to Kenyan radio. They heard music of the independent churches of Kenya, the salvation army, the Israel Church, and they were especially drawn to what they described as Bantu folk music, what they heard on the radio in the early 1980s, because it wasn't overtly Christian. And yet, in fact, when the Abayudaya were composing music to this initial group of 15 hymns, it was very difficult for them not to be influenced by the music in local Protestant churches, and even Catholic churches nearby. And in fact, now, the community recognizes that the early compositions from this time were influenced by local Christian music in that area. B.E: Can you give an example that? J.S: A great example of it would be “Psalm 92,” which is one of the signature psalms for welcoming the Sabbath, for Kabbalat Shabbat. This version is sung in Luganda, but I should stress that when the text uses the word “mukama,” which is the word used for Jesus, the Abayudaya will change that word and use the word Adonai, the word for God in Hebrew. B.E: Other songs come straight from common Jewish practice, right? J.S: Well, when Abayudaya youth set out to revive the community and compose psalms for worship, most of the psalms were composed in Luganda. But the community sang certain songs in Hebrew, and a wonderful example of this is J.J. Keki’s composition for “Lekha, Dodi (Come, My Beloved).” There is no hymn more emblematic of mainstream Jewish practice on Friday evening than this song “Lekha, Dodi,” composed by Shelomo Alkabetz in the land of Israel, and really growing out of the tradition of the Jewish mystics in the 16th century. This text personifies the Shabbat, the Sabbath, as a bride, welcomed each week with joy. The refrain is, "Oh, come, my beloved. Let us greet the bride. Let us welcome the Sabbath." This hymn is sung on Friday in Jewish communities throughout the world, and for the Abayudaya to sing this song in Hebrew is really a demonstration of their growing Hebrew fluency and a purposeful move towards mainstream Jewish practice. B.E: At the same time, the credits say it was composed by J.J. Keki. So he's written his own music for it, right? J.S: Yes. The text of “Lekha Dodi” is traditional, composed by Shelomo Alkabetz in Israel in the 16th century, but the music, the melody, is composed by J.J. Keki, and here, J.J. is really following a long Jewish tradition where Jewish communities all over the world have composed their own melodies for hymns like “Lekha Dodi.” The first time I heard J.J. sing the song, “Ali Omu Yekha (My Only Love),” I thought he was singing a love song to his wife. Only after I heard the song a number of times did I realize that this was actually a love song to the Torah. He was singing about the Jewish tradition. He was singing, "I have a beloved one, the only one. I don't have any other. Nothing to take me away from my beloved." This love song is in fact an expression of his deep connection to his culture and religious beliefs. B.E: I definitely hear African tradition in this song, “Kabbila (The Patch of Forest)." J.S: There are examples when the students’ teachers use Ugandan folk music to teach specific lessons, and they'll reinterpret the meanings of these songs in ways that express what they want to convey. In the song “Kabbila, The Patch of Forest,” the teachers use this traditional Baganda folk song that talks about hunters pursuing an animal, and they use it as a metaphor for students pursuing their education. The teachers encouraged their students to pursue their education with energy and vigor. B.E: Talk about “Twagala Torah.” J.S: In this song, the children are singing, “Twagala Torah,” “We Love the Torah.” This is a wonderful example of a song written by the students’ teachers to both teach Hebrew and selections from the prayer book, and to inculcate Jewish values, like the importance of education and observance. What's interesting about this song is that it includes Hebrew, Luganda, and English, to basically teach these messages, and it uses sections of the prayer book in Hebrew that are very familiar to Jews around the world. In this way, the Hebrew becomes familiar to the schoolchildren, and it creates a connection with Jewish visitors from around the world, who hear them sing these familiar phrases from the prayer book. B.E: I like this song, “Maimuna.” J.S: Maimuna is a girl's name, and this song is specifically a modification of a Bagisu circumcision song. It was changed by the community to be a campaign song for J.J. Keki when he ran, and was elected, to be chairman of Namanyoni sub county. Although the Abayudaya don't participate in the Bagisu circumcision rituals, they know these songs through close contact with Bagisu population, and because many Abayudaya are also part of this language ethnic group. Here, the text of the song, "Maimuna, the animal is in the trap. Maimuna, where you going?" is reinterpreted to mean: J.J.’s opponent is already trapped and J.J. will succeed in his campaign. This style of music also has occasion-specific lyrics. It would be sung at other Bagisu rituals and celebrations as well, such as the birth of twins, at a graduation, or when someone achieves economic success. Traditionally, among the Bagisu, these songs would be accompanied by drums and bells as well. B.E: There’s a lovely set of lullabies on the CD. J.S: Yeah, but you know, Banning, the lullabies are just really Ugandan. There is nothing Jewish about them. They are just beautiful, Ugandan lullabies. While the community is specifically composing many Jewish tunes for worship and celebration, it's really important to stress that in many instances in everyday life, people sing the music of local language and ethnic groups. A great example is this lullaby sung by Phyllis Nafuna, “Tulo, Tulo (Sleep, Sleep).” "Sleep, take this child. If you don't take the child, you are a witch. I want to go dancing and change my life. You only live once." B.E: Let's talk about what you refer to as the oldest Abayudaya music. J.S: Okay. When Semei Kakungulu began to develop musical traditions for the nascent Jewish community in Uganda, he drew from Malakite worship, the dissident Protestant group he'd gone to after he left the Anglican Church. And he basically put together the liturgy of the Shabbat morning services that consisted of chanting sections from the Song of Moses, which is Deuteronomy 32, in a chant melody that is very similar to a form of chant that the Malakites were doing at that time in the 1920s. The community has preserved his music today, although it's no longer the centerpiece of their Sabbath liturgy. In the 1980s, Kakungulu's music just wasn't seen to provide the kind of energy and community focus that was needed to draw the youth back to the community. Gershom said, "The song of Moses wasn't enough. The youth are interested in modern things. And it was a time when we are being discouraged by the Amin regime. We wanted music that would attract the youth back to the community. If you look at the earlier compositions, it's interesting to see that even when the youth are singing these older compositions today, they add harmonies, and in certain ways modernize the presentation of this music. B.E: Not on the CD, but among your field recordings is an adungu harp composition where the women sing messages about AIDS. J.S: Michael Mawoni performs a number of his solo compositions on the adungu. But he also sometimes performs these songs with a whole women's chorus from the village where he lives. On some of these songs, he and the women will say about AIDS/HIV, and the importance of educating the villagers to proper health practices. B.E: Then you have quite a few electric pop songs. Where do they come from? J.S: Many of the youth in the community, teenagers in the Semei Kakungulu High School, compose Afropop, very much in the style of popular Ugandan musicians, Rachel Magoola, Afrigo Band and other popular performers, and these compositions speak about people's lives and the trials of love and economic difficulties. These are very much stories of teenagers doing their best to live their lives effectively. What is interesting about the music is that many of the values of the community come through in these teenagers compositions. A stress on the importance of education. A stress on the importance of hard work. A sense that one has to work hard to achieve one's goals. B.E: One of these is the song, "We are Happy," which has to do with the Jewish holiday of Purim, but also involves improvising of lyrics. Talk about that. J.S: Gershom Sizomu wrote this song for community celebration, but it was originally used for the Jewish holiday of Purim. They sing, "We are happy, we are happy on this day." And then it tells the story of the Jews deliverance from the evil villain Haman from the story of the Book of Esther. It's notable that the text of the song is in English, but then switches into Hebrew. “Sing hallelujah." As it tells the story of hope and deliverance. It is common with a song like this to use occasions specific lyrics. So if the song is being performed not for Purim, but at a wedding party or bar mitzvah, it would be common for the lead singer to improvise verses about the bride and groom, or about the person who is celebrating his bar mitzvah. To make the song relevant and specific to the occasion. B.E: How would you characterize the status of the Abayudaya community today in Uganda? And how has it changed since the time of Idi Amin? J.S: It's interesting that for a community that is so small, the Abayudaya have had an impact on culture in Uganda. They received quite a bit of attention when the CD Abayudaya, Music of the Jewish People of Uganda was nominated for a Grammy award. This was big news in the Ugandan newspapers, and it received play on the airwaves in Uganda. It's interesting, because this was not a recording done by professional musicians, although many of the musicians are very wonderful. It was noted that this was the first Ugandan CD that was nominated for a Grammy. The Abayudaya have also drawn certain attention for the development efforts they have been involved with in the Mbale region. Peace Kuomora, the fair trade coffee cooperative, has received international press, not only from the American media and the Jewish media, but Al Jazeera recently did a feature program on the Peace Kuomora cooperative. So I would say that the Abayudaya are drawing a lot of attention for a community that is so small. B.E: What larger lessons can we take from the Abayudaya story? About Africa? About the nature of Judaism? Anything you think is important in terms of what this incredible story teaches us? J.S: A reason that I love the story of the Abayudaya is because it blows stereotypes out of the water. It makes us rethink what Jews look like, what Jews sound like, where Jews live, and who Jews are. I would also say this. While so many people seem concerned that the contact that North American Jewry is having on the Abayudaya might change the community, in fact, the music and traditions of the Abayudaya have had a deep impact on North American Jews who come in contact with them, and as the ties between the Abayudaya and North American Jewry strengthened, their reciprocal relationship becomes increasingly complex. When visiting North America, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki were surprised, and in their own words "amazed and strengthened" to hear Abayudaya melodies sung in some of the congregations that they visited. Up to then, they didn't see the music in Reform and Conservative worship, which were two of the Abayudaya's authoritative liturgical reference points, as quite so fluid. And yet these liberal, North American Jews are engaged in a dynamic process of liturgical choice and transformation, a process where Abayudaya compositions are received less as an object of exotic interest, than as a source for spiritual renewal. In 2002, I brought a recording of Tufts' Jewish a cappella group, Sheer Appeal, singing a medley of Abayudaya songs in Hebrew and Luganda, that the Tufts group had carefully learned from my field recordings. As we listened in the Moses synagogue, the assembled community fell silent. Most had never traveled outside the Mbale district, but the music functioned like a meta-language, a form of transactional communication that leveled boundaries and forged a powerful connection between these Jews in Uganda and the Jews in North America. Gershom Sizomu commented, "They sang in perfect Luganda. The whole world became a small thing." B.E: Finally, do the Abayudaya have any awareness of or attitude about these other African Jewish communities we've mentioned, particularly the Beta Israel? J.S: In North America, when I share with people that I have been doing research for the last seven years with the Abayudaya, many people immediately start asking me about their relationship with the Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community, but the fact of the matter is that the Abayudaya didn't even know about the Beta Israel until quite recently. There was no connection between their communities. Now, especially Gershom Sizomu is conscious of the fact that there are various Jewish communities, and aspiring Jewish communities, around Africa. And one of the things that Gershom wants to do when he returns to Nabogoya Hill after finishing his rabbinic studies this year, is to put together an institute for Jews in Africa, that could be a place for study and discussion and community building. B.E: If these groups start talking to each other, they could create an incredibly interesting dialogue. Obviously they would have a few things to work out amongst themselves. J.S: But it will be very interesting. B.E: We’ll stay tuned for that. Thank you very much for all this. J.S: Thanks for having me.