I first heard about the Abayudaya in 1996, through the work of "Kulanu," an organization working in support of isolated and marginalized Jewish community around the world. In September 2003, Rachel Namudosi Keki, a 21-year-old Abayudaya woman visited our community. It was a remarkable event.
Rachel highly recommends this book (which includes many pictures of her father, J.J. Keki, and a few of Rachel as well, although she is not identified by name) as the best available resource for understanding the history, reality, and day-to-day life of the Abayudaya.
The audio CD is a vital part of that understanding. (More Abayudaya music is available on the Kulanu-produced CD, "Shalom Everybody Everywhere;" Rachel is the soloist on these recordings, mostly recorded when she was around ten years old.)
Among the many unexpected revelations in this visually stunning book is the fact that J.J. Keki was visiting America in the late summer of 2001, and witnessed the first plane striking the World Trade Centers on September 11th. If you review film footage from that day, you can catch a glimpse of a tall black man wearing a kippah among those running from the scene.
Richard Sobol has just come out with Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, an exquisite volume of photographs with text about this remarkable group, and a CD of Abayudaya music is included in a pocket attached to the back cover. The music was recorded and annotated by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, an ethnomusicologist at Tufts University.
Those of us who have lived and traveled in sub-Saharan Africa universally bemoan the fact that our pictures cannot capture the color and contrast, the rhythm, the unique beauty that is Africa. Richard Sobol, a seasoned pro, has captured the essence of these African scenes as few others can (Carol Beckwith comes to mind). Views of the Ugandan countryside and towns, of Abayudaya prayer and study and feasting, of women washing dishes and carrying water and preparing food, of elders in contemplation, of adults and children at play, of vendors of colorful housewares, of stunning posed portraits - it's all there, and each photo is a masterpiece.
And Sobol's 18-page essay about Abayudaya history and life and Jewish practice is a fine summary for those who have not been introduced to this unique community before.
Summit has written a five-page text to introduce the CD, which is entitled Abayudaya Music of Worship and Celebration. This essay is both informative and poignant. It reviews the various influences on Abayudaya music - Zulu music, church and Salvation Army music, Bantu folk music, Western visitors, and Nairobi (Kenya) synagogue melodies - often learned from recordings or the radio.
Summit recorded this wonderful sampling of Abayudaya music in informal sessions in Uganda in 2000 and 2002. The first half of the CD includes unaccompanied traditional hymns and psalms, some dating back 20 or 30 years, one composed by the community's founder, Semei Kakungulu, in the 1920s. The annotations themselves make fascinating reading. One note explains that Psalm 136, heard on the recording as a responsive "reading" with soloist and chorus, reminds the community of the downfall of Idi Amin since it recounts God's deliverance with the splitting of the Red Sea. A particularly precious rendition is Rena bat Esther's solo in Psalm 121, used by the Abayudaya to provide strength and comfort when a person is ill. This is one of the few compositions on the CD by a female composer. Another woman's composition is the melody to Psalm 130, which is sung repeatedly during a burial while shoveling earth and filling up the grave. Women seem to specialize in consolation.
Twagala Torah ("We Love the Torah") is a charming children's song composed by one of the youth leaders of the community, Moses Sebagabo. The text, in Luganda, English and Hebrew, is sung by Abayudaya children who attend public school.
The more upbeat second half of the CD features guitar accompaniment by Gershom Sizomu and electric keyboard by John Mark Nkoola, musical director of the Abayudaya high school. In an interesting contrast, Summit placed the a capella rendition of Psalm 136 in the first half and the electric version of the same psalm in the latter half. J.J. Keki's song "Ali Omu Yekka" ("My Only One") sounds like a standard love song: "I have one chosen one. I only have one love. I'm warning those others, don't come near me, she's enough...." But Summit points out that the Torah is the object of the songwriter's love, and the song is a veiled warning to Christian and Muslim proselytes in Uganda!
John Mark Nkoola wrote a modern song about the feeling he has when somebody has died. The words are particularly poignant in this place where deaths from AIDS and malaria are not uncommon: "The time has come. We must be going back where we have come from, to dust... When I think about death, I become afraid. I wish I had somebody to explain why this happens. Perhaps I may settle my mind. Let us enjoy life... Enjoy life in the right time, place and with the right people before you disappear like a shadow."
A few of the selections were heard on the community's first recording, "Shalom Everybody Everywhere!" produced by Kulanu with the Abayudaya in 1997. It is particularly satisfying to hear the beautiful, mature voice of Rachel Namudosi, in "Adonai Mukulu" ("God Is Great"). We heard her lovely child's voice on earlier recording. Happily, more recordings are in the works.