Peace, Coffee, Uganda: Rabbi Jeffrey Summit’s Ethnomusicological Work With The Abayudaya

Each Friday a collection of Tufts students dine at the campus Hillel for Shabbat dinner, and each Friday Rabbi Jeffrey Summit reminds them, infamously, to eat slowly. The phrase, which has become Rabbi Summit’s weekly mantra encouraging students to relax and enjoy the time spent with one another, is homey, comforting, expected. What Tufts students perhaps may not have expected to see was Rabbi Summit’s face plastered all over the doors of Tisch Library the first weeks of November in an announcement promoting an impending talk to discuss his work on multiple acclaimed albums coming from the music of the Abayudaya and their neighbors in Uganda, his Grammy nominated album for best album in the category of Traditional World Music, and his most recent album, Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda, which explores the interfaith music of Fair Trade coffee farmers in Uganda are much less known to the Tufts community. Summit’s story is rich, his musical work is expansive, and the message behind his work demands to be heard. To uncover the context and the meaning behind his music, we asked Rabbi Jeffrey Summit about his recent work.

Why did the field of ethnomusicology interest you originally?

I always have been a musician. I have been playing music all my life, since I was 6 years old. There was a point when I was just finishing college that I was trying to decide to go into music professionally or to go into rabbinical school, and I was drawn to rabbinical school because I really was interested in talking about values and issues of morality. I was fascinated by ritual and culture, and how people do important things in groups and community, the nature of community, so I decided to go to rabbinical school but those questions about the power of music in people’s lives were very relevant to me.

What was your first venture into the field? When did you first fall in love with ethnomusicology?

Actually, right when I was finishing rabbinical school I did a year of field research with the Yemenite Jewish community in Israel, as I was writing my rabbinic thesis. It was during that year of fieldwork, before I knew what fieldwork really was, that I became fascinated by the field and the people and ethnomusicology in Israel. If I had discovered the field of ethnomusicology before I went to rabbinical school I might have just become an ethnomusicologist, and I’m really glad that I didn’t because I’ve loved my rabbinical work so much.

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Why is ethnomusicology so important?

I have always seen the work I do in ethnomusicology to be a real augmentation, a way to go deeper into issues that draw me into Jewish practice in general— questions like: What’s the power of music and community? Why do people sing the music that they sing? What can we learn about people through the music they love and the music they hate? My whole approach in ethnomusicology has been to focus on how we understand core values in a community, and music is a very deep way to get people talking about what is important in their cultural and religious lives.

How did you get started with your work in the Abayudaya community in Uganda?

I worked on those things with the American Jewish community for about 10 years. I wrote a book on music and identity and Jewish worship. I did other work on technology and its impact on Jewish oral tradition. And then about 14 years ago, my very good friend Richard Sobol, who is a photo journalist (the most intrepid person I know) came back from a trip to do a book on the mountain gorillas on the Ugandan Rwandan boarder, and he heard about this community in Uganda, the Abayudaya, the Jews of Uganda, and he stopped by when he came back and said that he spent about three days with them. And he came to me and he said that he needed an ethnomusicologist on this project, that this [community] was just incredible. I had just finished this book on music and prayer in suburban Boston and I said “Richard, I don’t want to go to Uganda, I like to sleep in a bed, I don’t want to deal with malaria,” our kids were young… and he said. “oh yeah, listen to this,” and he had a little mp3 player, with down and dirty recordings of the music and he played me about 2 minutes of the music and I said, “When do we leave?” Three months later I was on a plane to Uganda and have been back since then seven times to do research with this community.

This culminated in a couple of things: a CD for Smithsonian folkways, and a book of the Abayudayan community that I did with Richard. I was just thrilled to work with the Smithsonian on this.

What was your experience working with the Smithsonian?

Smithsonian folkways is the record label of the United States of America. They are the people who did Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and if you’re into American music and world music they are amazing. It took me about four years to get them to pay attention to the material, but when they finally did, they fell in love with it and they do an amazing job of distributing. They’re one of the record companies that will let you do substantial scholarship connected with the music so there’s a 36 page booklet in this CD that talks about the whole nature of the community.

How did your vision shift while working with the Smithsonian?

I had gone [to Uganda] and was moved by [the Abayudaya community’s] liturgical music, the music they used in worship, and I came back to the Smithsonian with all the recordings of their music in worship and the people—who are now very dear friends of mine—said, “okay, this is interesting, but we want to know who are these people not just as Jews, but who are they as people.” So I went back and recorded their political songs, and lullaby’s, and drumming, and a whole range of additional music, and it put together a very broad picture of who this amazing Jewish community is in Uganda.

Were you expecting this album to receive a Grammy nomination?

I was totally surprised and delighted when the CD got a Grammy nomination. I never expected that at all. In terms of just personal accomplishments, I was totally blown away when sometime after that I went down to their offices. They have amazing offices with all this ethnographic material and Pete Seeger’s banjo, and I walk in and they have on the walls huge blow ups of their albums, and mine was up there as one of the albums that they really were proud of.

Did you expect your journey with the Abayudaya community to be as long lasting as it was?

So I did this work with the Abayudaya, maybe it took me four years or so, and then I was really ready to stop working in Uganda. The research was hard, it was very far away, this community was very far away. It’s a safe community, but while I was doing the research, there was all this political turmoil in Darfur and Sudan, but that was about 8 hours away, and there was a war going on in Northern Uganda, but that was not in the area that I was working in. Where I was working was at peace, but it was challenging. The people were wonderful and I became very close with them and I’m still in contact with them all the time, but, [after those four years] I [decided] I was through.

What then lead to the creation of your second album working with the Abayudaya?

JJ Kaki, who was one of the musicians working with us ( who is on the cover of the CD) and who I actually brought with me to the Grammys—we lost the Grammy to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I’m a huge fan and they had never gotten the Grammy before, so I couldn’t feel bad.

JJ was staying with us in 2001 right before 9/11 and he went down to New York for a meeting. He was literally walking up to the World Trade Center when the planes hit the towers. He saw the planes hit the towers. And JJ ‘s reaction to this, to me, was inspirational. Because this was a time when there was tremendous xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, and fear. But JJ’s reaction was that every person has a responsibility to do something to bring peace to the world. He always said that he always believed that peace would come from simple people, that it would grow from the ground up.

JJ went back [to Uganda] and literally walked door to door to his Muslim and Christian neighbors—he’s Jewish—and asked them to join a fair trade coffee cooperative that would be an interfaith cooperative that would model cooperation.

And then the coffee farmers started to write music about interfaith harmony tikun olam (repairing the world), social justice, education and fair trade and changing people’s lives and livelihoods. I was just so moved by the project and I thought, “I have to do a CD on this.” So I went back to Uganda, I went back 3 times, and recorded more than 400 farmers from the Delicious Peace cooperation.

What was the role of the music that the Delicious Peace Cooperative was creating in the lives of the farmers?

In East Africa specifically, Music is used functionally as a tool for education, so when people have things to teach, they do it through musicThey use music to teach important lessons. So the farmers began to sing to model a different way to be in relationship with their neighbors. Uganda has a history of ethnic and religious strife, so this was quite unusual that this fair trade cooperative was an interfaith peace-building venture. And the music was great. When I brought it back to the Smithsonian it took them a while to do it, but when they did it, they included our video and Richard Sobol’s photography, and they did a beautiful job.

Why was Delicious Peace so personally important to you?

I believe in projects that are teaching values that I really support, so for the Abayudaya project, I loved the fact that this was showing that the Jewish community looks and sounds very different from the stereotypes that people have of Jews. People think that the Jewish community is a bunch of European white people, but around the world the Jewish community is very diverse, and the Jewish traditions of the Jews from Africa are mostly known to people by the prominent Jewish communities of North Africa. People don’t know about other groups, the Abayudaya converted to Judaism about 100 years ago.


What intersections of identity expressed through music interest you most? 

I’m very interested in the construction of ritual and how people develop liturgy and ritual and culture. One of the things that is fascinating to me about the Ugandan Jewish community is that they are a very young community and they are still trying to work out the nature of their Jewish expression.

If you try to make sense of how Jewishness is today in Ashkenazi synagogues you see an evolution over many centuries. For the Abayudaya they are actively constructing their religious and cultural traditions right now so you see them making these choices on the ground and it’s very interesting. Why do people choose to sing certain melodies and not others? Why do people choose to have services longer or shorter? What’s the role of tradition and what’s the role of personal agency when people construct culture.

What insights into the construction of ritual were you able to capture through working with the Abayudaya?

Working with them was really like working in a laboratory, to see how these things developing. For example they sing a certain melody after the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after the meals. They are very interested in melodies that are sung by Jews in North America and in Israel because for them this represents authentic Judaism, but they also like to write their own melodies because they want their own culture to be part of who they are. So, they chose the tune that BBYO [the American Jewish youth group for high schoolers] uses for the blessing after the meals, and I asked, why this one? And they said, “we were familiar with orthodox and the reform prayer… but the orthodox was too long, and the reform too short, but for us, this one was just right.” And there you see personal agency, making a choice that felt like it fit with the aesthetics and the values of the community.

Why was forming ritual so imperative to the Abayudaya?

This community used music to reconstitute themselves after the persecution of Idi Amin, the dictator Idi Amin really repressed all small religious and groups in Uganda during his horrendous dictatorship during the 1970’s, so the Abayudaya pretty much went into hiding, disappeared, and when they came back when he was deposed in 1979, they started to write music, and original Jewish music of their community from the 1920’s was very repetitive and they wanted more active music that younger community members would sing. But they didn’t want to draw from Christian music, so they started listening to nonaffiliated churches in Kenya, to Zulu folk music, Salvation Army music, and they built their hymns around those choices.

How does the music found within both Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda  and Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda represent the coming together of different identities or cultures?  

Although they intentionally tried not to use Christian music as a basis, the style they were writing in was very much influenced by Christian music. They told me that they didn’t think of it that way when we started to write it. They didn’t want to think of it that way, but they said, “of course we were influenced by local traditions,” but I said, “don’t feel bad, everyone is.” Debbie Freedman’s music sounds like American folk music. When Jewish composers were writing in Berlin and Vienna it sounded like the music of Berlin and Vienna. Of course there are similarities. They didn’t think of it that way when they started to write it.

What was typical about these songs and what was atypical? What surprised you most when you were working with the community?

One of the things that was very special was that in terms of the Abayudaya music, these were people had been singing with each other for 15, 20 years so the music had a quality of deep community connection. The music that I recorded was how it sounded when they sang it at synagogue, and it wasn’t like a bunch of performers and musicians—this was the music that they sang. The non-professionalized nature of the music was extraordinary. I got together big groups of people to sing and it was really the people of the community who were the musicians. They had tremendous creativity in doing their own compositions. Their Hebrew is influenced by Luganda pronunciation. In Luganda, every word ends with vowels so as Hebrew ends in consonants it sounded very rough to them, and so they smooth it out by adding vowels to the end of them, and so Adon Olam, for example, becomes “adoni olamu”.

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When you were working on these albums what were you listening to? What was your inspiration, musical and otherwise?

I’m a big fan of Afropop music, and I was listening to tons of Afropop. Everybody from Congo Bongo man, which is amazing, to Oliver Micudutzi to Vusi Mahlasela, all of these different Afropop musicians, because when I was traveling around east Africa this is what we would listen to in our van all the time.

Did your work achieve what you hoped it would? What do you hope is the effect of listening to this music on listeners?

A lot of the work that I’ve wanted to do through this, the music and the recording in Africa was very connected to how people use music to move forward values and agendas they think are important in the world. The project with the Abayudaya for me was very important because it underscored Jewish diversity, showing that Judaism crosses race, language, and borders.

I wanted to dispel certain stereotypes about what Jews look and sound like. For the Delicious Peace project I was really inspired by this response to 9/11 at a time when the world seemed so fearful. JJ and the farmers in this very remote location were very effectively modeling peaceful relations through their music and their fair trade coffee cooperative. As someone who is very passionate about coffee, I wanted people to know the webs of connection that exist between us and the people who raise and grow the food that we value.

The thing about coffee it there is no way to mechanize the harvest, so some farmer in Uganda or Rwanda or Guatemala or Brazil has to walk into her field and look at the tree and discern what cherry is ripe, pick it by hand, put it in a sack, pulp it, dry it, and transport it. There’s all this labor that goes into or lives that we don’t understand and conceptualize and I really believe that part of my concept of God is that when we say that God is one, it’s about understanding that there is this oneness that exists in the world that we fail to perceive. My hope was that through the music and through the story of the coffee farmers people would perceive a small part of that oneness that connects us to people halfway around the world who are raising food that is very important to us. If we could only live our lives understanding that we were connected to other people we wouldn’t kill them, or stereotype them, or demonize them, and that was the reason why I wanted to tell their story.

How has the process of these two projects continued past the production of the two albums?

For the past 12 years I have been running a project raising money to send students from the Abayudaya community to college We put more than 20 students through university who are now contributing leadership and specific skills to their community. I’d like to think that I have had an impact on the communities and have helped them in their vision and goals, but honestly I think it has been far more transformative for me. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them. I feel like the contact with them has changed my life in profound ways. I am very happy that I have been engaged in this work and when you work with music you work from some place deep in your soul and it has been very satisfying to be able to do work from such a deep place.

Photos courtesy of Richard Sobol

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