Making Music With the Jews of Uganda
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Ph.D., is a man of many talents. He is the Neubauer Executive Director of Hillel at Tufts University and holds appointments as research professor in the department of music and the Judaic studies program. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his album, “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda,” and won an Indie Music Award for his second album, “Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda.” Rabbi Summit’s social justice work through ethnomusicology is diverse and richly unique. He recently spoke with JewishBoston in anticipation of his Feb. 11 talk at Temple Shalom of Newton about the Jews of Uganda and his work with the Abayudaya community.
How did you begin to work in the Abayudaya community in Uganda?
I had been doing work with Jews in suburban America across denominational lines, which resulted in the first book I wrote called “The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship.” I heard about the Jewish community in northeastern Uganda from my friend Richard Sobol, a photojournalist. He needed an ethnomusicologist to do a project with the community. I listened to recordings of their songs, which I loved, and three months later I was on a plane to Uganda. That was the first of seven research trips to work with the Abayudaya community and record their music.
“Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda” received a Grammy nomination. How has that affected your work?
I knew I wanted to work with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the record label for the United States of America. They’re very selective and their CDs get a lot of attention. Even though the music on our CD is amazing, I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would get a Grammy nomination. I was thrilled for the exposure. It enabled people to see that Jews are much more diverse than they realized. I also donated all of the profits from the CD to support Abayudayan students who want to go to college in Uganda. Thus far, we have put close to 40 students through college.
Did you expect your journey with the Abayudaya community to be as long as it has been?
I can’t believe it’s been 18 years. When I first thought about starting this work, I knew as an ethnomusicologist I would be connected to these people for the rest of my life. When I write about social justice work, one of the issues I write about is that sustainability is very important. Responsible scholarship in ethnomusicology is understanding and maintaining connections with people.
How did the second album, “Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda,” come about?
By 2004, I thought I was finished researching the Abayudaya community. In the meantime, one of the leaders of the community, JJ Keki, had started an interfaith coffee cooperative specifically as a reaction to 9/11. JJ was staying in Boston days before 9/11. We put him on a train to New York the morning of 9/11 and he literally was walking up to the towers when the planes hit them. He became the Ugandan at the scene of the disaster and was interviewed by all of the Ugandan newspapers.
JJ came to realize that 9/11 was caused by a religious conflict. He decided each of us has to do what we can to bring peace to the world with whatever we have. He thought, his community had coffee, so he asked his Christian and Muslim neighbors if they would be part of an interfaith coffee cooperative. The community then started to write music about interfaith harmony, fair trade and economic justice. This project ended up encompassing everything I care about—music, coffee, world peace. I went back to Uganda to work on the CD. We recorded 400 farmers singing, and the album won the Indie Music Award for best world album.
What unique Jewish rituals did you observe in your work with the Abayudaya?
The Abayudaya very much want to be part of mainstream Judaism. Many communities in Africa claim Jewish lineage—they are drawn to the power of the ancient traditions of Judaism. The Abayudaya are different in that they actually practice mainstream Judaism. Many people in the community speak Hebrew and observe Shabbat. Except for the unique melodies, you would recognize the order of their services. They used the Conservative prayer book for a number of years and the community’s rabbi was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University.
The community self-converted in the early 1920s as a reaction to being evangelized by the Anglican Church of England. They wanted to build on their Jewish roots and quickly met Jews who were merchants in Kampala. From those merchants, they learned mainstream Jewish traditions. The Conservative beit din (a Jewish court of law) recently went over to Uganda and did halachic (according to Jewish law) conversions for about half the community. They’re now in the process of converting the entire community, and the leaders of the community did halachic conversions in the United States.
Where does your involvement with the community stand now?
I’m very involved in running the university scholarship fund. The Abayudaya have given me so much. My journey with them has been so important and so inspirational for my own Jewish life.