Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda

Address updated from the liner notes to correspond with website information (please verify this information before use):

Smithsonian Folkways Mail Order, PO Box 37012, MRC 520, CG 2001, Washington, D.C. 20013-7012; Phone/U.S.: (800) 410-9815, or (888) FOLKWAYS; Phone/International: (202) 633-6450; Fax/U.S.: (800) 853-9511, or (202) 633-6477; Website/(http://www.folkways.si.edu); Informational Requests (not secure for orders!): (smithsonianfolkways@si.edu). (p) and © 2003 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Compiled and annotated by Jeffrey A. Summit, co-author with Richard Sobol, of Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda (New York: Abbeville Press, 2002). He is a Research Professor at Tufts University, where he also serves as Rabbi and executive director of Hillel.

Folkway Records was founded in 1948 by Moses Asch. The Smithsonian Institute acquired the collection in 1987 from the Asch estate. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is a non-profit label “expressing a commitment to cultural diversity, education and increased understanding.”

I’m glad I wrote my comments prior to reading the CD’s liner notes and revealed my own impressions without being influenced by someone else’s thoughts. In the end, though, after hearing the entire CD and then reading the story, I must say that the story did influence my thoughts.

Nowadays in this crazy world, everybody criticizes and hates the Jews and tells them what awful people they are — so much so that the United Nations disproportionately issues resolutions against them; the Christians and others start a boycott and divestment campaign to stop others from doing business with us (the Jews), which, with the exception of oil, is the original way that the Arabs got others to boycott us and use them instead. If a business “did business” with the Jews, then the Arabs would not give that company its business; and if the Arabs were courted by foreign businessmen, then the foreign businessmen had to cease all dealings with the Jews before acquiring any Arab business! Given the Inquisition, the Crusades, the pogroms and The Final Solution against us, why on earth would anybody desire to be a part of the Jewish people?

The answer is — for the same reason that they hate us. For because G-d said that we would be His people and He would be our G-d, we are envied and despised and need to be made to look unworthy of the honor (already bestowed). That is the reason for “replacement theology,” whereby another group claims conferred status for themselves and tries to make it appear that our position (in G-d’s eyes) has been replaced.

That is why I am very wary of all those who have gone before and all those who will come since who wish to ally themselves to Judaism in claims of being Jewish. Some claim to be lost tribes, and if we get it wrong by forsaking them, we will be in sore trouble with the L-rd for doing so.

This group of people from Uganda, calling themselves ‘The Abayudaya’, does not claim Jewish lineage, but claims to be Jewish through the practice of faith. The CD notes say that, of the approximately 600 people which comprise this community, there span five Bantu ethnic and language groups: Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu, Bagwere, and Banyole. It has been long known that Christian missionaries have, for hundreds of years, been actively engaged in the proselytization of the African continent to make Christian converts of the African people. They have succeeded tremendously. Many of the Abayudaya converted to Christianity under the regime of Idi Amin. The Anglican Church Missionary Society even evangelized the Abayudaya’s founder, Semei Kakungulu, for the Anglican Church.

Kakungulu had hoped to be recognized by Britain as a king in the eastern region of Uganda, but when he was not, he joined the Malakite Protestants instead. By 1919, he is said to have embraced the concept of male circumcision on the eighth day of life, which the Malakite’s founder, Malakai, told him only Jewish people practice. He, his sons, and male followers were circumcised, and they practiced a mixed style of Biblical observance and Protestantism.

Kakungulu adapted Malakite worship music and developed the Sabbath liturgy for the Abayudaya. Their first contact with Judaism occurred when Kakungulu met a Jew named Yusuf, a trader who taught them certain prayers and blessings, elementary Hebrew, and the basics of Kosher slaughtering.

At this point, they dropped references to Jesus and the practice of baptism. Another Jewish man from Yemen, David Solomon, provided them basic Hebrew books and Jewish calendars. It is noted that they had had little contact with Jews up until the mid-1960’s.

The Abayudaya still celebrate the local traditions of their language and ethnic groups and don’t find this to be in conflict with the Jewish identity they have chosen for themselves.

In 1962, Mr. Solomon asked Arye Oded, secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Kampala, to visit them. Mr. Oded did so and arranged for prayerbooks to be sent to them. They began to restructure their worship to more closely resemble Judaic practice, but Idi Amin (1971-1979) put an end to all that.

I guessed that “Yudaya” meant having to do with the Jews; I was right — it means “Jew” in the Luganda language. The plural, “Jews,” is “Bayudaya.” “Abayudaya” means “The Jews,” repeating the definite article when referring to themselves as “The Abayudaya.”

They continue to use their African dialect languages; Hebrew is not used as a communicational language, and is not indigenous to their culture. Hebrew mistakes I noted in several places where it is used in song are referenced in the liner notes, explained as the Luganda influence adding vowels to the Hebrew pronunciation. For instance, I thought I heard an “i” sound at the end of “likrat,” which should not be there. In Hebrew, adding an “i” would mean “to me”, where it is not warranted; I also thought I heard a “u” sound added (some Hebrew dialects do seem to have this, though).

During Idi Amin’s eight- to nine-year reign of Uganda, many Abayudaya converted to Christianity, leaving only about three-hundred of the community remaining with what faith they had acquired to-date. Much of it was forgotten during this time, and they allege to have worshipped in secret, attempting to make its revival beginning in the early 1980’s with the “Young Jewish Club.”

In 1988, the Anglican School claimed Nabugoye Hill where the original Moses Synagogue was. Joab (J.J.) Keki, his brothers, and some youth formed a new group they named “The Kibbutz,” and squatted in one of the buildings on the hill. Kakungulu’s son, though, had converted to Christianity.

As representative of the Abayudaya, Keki first visited the Nairobi Jewish community in the late 1980’s, but was disbelieved. His brother, Gershom Sizomu, however, began to study with one of their members in the early 1990’s.

Many of the Abayudaya now wish to move to Israel. To be recognized formally for one who was not born into the Jewish faith, a halachic conversion must take place and would generally need to be performed by an Orthodox Rabbi. Three Conservative and one Reform Rabbi went in 2002 there to perform conversion for more than 350 members of the community.

Kakungulu divided the Song of Moses into eight songs, which was the basis for Abayudaya worship in the early 1980’s; new compositions were created later on by the Young Jewish Club and were based on various sources and influences: Zulu music, music of the Independent Churches in Kenya, The Salvation Army, Israel Church, and Bantu folk music. Most are sung in the Luganda language with an occasional Hebrew word added. In one of the songs on their CD, they sing of “Musa,” which is the Arabic word for the Jewish Moses, whom the Muslims consider a prophet. The Psalms were all originally sung in Luganda, but they are now starting to be increasingly sung in Hebrew.

Popular African music also plays a role in shaping the composition of Abayudayan music. They seem to prefer their own compositions and liturgy over incorporating traditional Jewish music and prayer services into their own. It does not seem to me to be part of the Jewish community when tradition is held in such disregard, in deference to secular, non-religious factors. What has held all Jews together, despite differences in worship style, are certain prayers and traditions which cannot just be jettisoned and its results considered Jewish at the same time. While Reform and Orthodox practice, on outward appearance, seem to be unrelated at-best, the premise of Judaism remains essentially, at its core, the same.

In a dustjacket photo, the menorah crafted by one of their people is a symbolic rendition only — a metal sculpture without a place for candles or oil. We use a chanukkiyah to commemorate the Hasmonean Jewish victory more than 2000 years ago over the occupying Roman pagan forces, when we recouped our Temple and resanctified it with the cruze of Holy oil found there, which burned eight days, ensuring enough time for additional oil to be produced. The chanukkiyah, used only for this festival commemoration, has eight place-arms to represent each day for which the light was kindled, plus one holder more for the lead candle. There is to always burn an eternal flame kept lit in the Temple.

I don’t know whether the Abayudaya have been formally recognized, but without going through an Orthodox conversion, it seems unlikely to be a possibility, despite everyone’s best wishes. They insist on maintaining their own traditions and not adopting the other Jewish ones. They are adamant about that. So, what makes that Jewish? To me, that pretty much makes it… Bantu.

1) Psalm 136 (3:24) – Beautiful in phases I and II (upbeat mode). Swahili Mapambio style used in evangelical Churches throughout East Africa. Composed by J.J. Keki.

2) Katonda Oyo Nalimana (G-d is All-Knowing) (4:09) – Crazy drums, crazy chanting, frantic clapping and crazy yips (as in, “whoo-whoo” crazy). So crazy, singers even do the “whoo-whoo” screaming where you pat your lips with your flat hand. Undignified. A traditional song of the Basoga people with improvised words in Luganda (as they traditionally are in this style and context).

3) Hiwumbe Awumba (G-d Creates and then Destroys) (2:31) – Crazy music-box ukelele-sounding song with bird-twittering in the background. Mentions airplanes, bicycles, cars and death. By Michael Mausoni, whose own family are Christian converts. Similar to 1990’s-style sounds. Umm……………….

4) Mwana Talitambula (The Child Will Never Walk) (1:18) – A child singing about a child who will never walk. I like this. The child uses vocalizations as if it were an instrument. Lusoga text based on local traditions.

5) Mwana, Ngolera (Baby, Keep Quiet) (0:49) – An older child in a deeper tone singing rhythmically, as if an instrument. Lunyole text based on local traditions.

6) Tulo, Tulo (Sleep, Sleep) (0:52) – One singer, singing softly, “Sleep, sleep.” Very nice. Popular Baganda lullabye, Luganda text. “Sleep, sleep, take the child. If you don’t, then you are a witch! I want to go dancing, change my life. You only live once.” Sounds like typical American crap from too-young parents with children, who still want to party and foist their children on others. Not Jewish values at all.

7) I am a Soldier (0:46) – Lots of children singing that they’re a soldier in the Army of the L-rd. (In English). This song made me angry. I feel they are mocking Israel and Jews with their English, saying they are a soldier in the L-rd’s Army. It comes across very poorly, as if it was meant to. Indeed, it was a Pentecostal Church song to which they added the final verse, “in the Army of the L-rd” to supposedly make it “Jewish”.

8) Mi Khamokha (Who is Like You, O, G-d?) (0:18) – Parts of a Hebrew prayer. Different than I’m used to. Different melody, as theirs is composed by Aaron Kintu Moses. (One verse, in Hebrew).

9) Kabbila (The Patch of Forest) (3:49) – Repetitive. Woman’s voice too shrill for my ears. Traditional Baganda folk song, text in Luganda.

10) Twagala Torah (We Love the Torah) (1:33) – Text in Luganda, English and Hebrew. Melody and Luganda text by Moses Sebagabo.

11) We are Happy (3:25) – An actual song with accompaniment, singing ‘they’re happy’. Village guitar music, keyboards, occasional drums and adungu (harp) about Purim, with improvised lyrics to mark occasion of the festivity. Composed by Gershom Sizomu. (In English).

12) Adon Olam (Master of the World) (1:53) – I nod in praise. Hebrew text. Melody by Gershom Sizomu.

13) Lekhah, Dodi (Come, My Beloved) (5:21) – I think I hear some Hebrew mistakes. Hebrew text, sung in Hebrew. Melody by J.J. Keki.

14) Psalm 92 (4:59) – Sounds like they’ve received some coaching from Missionary Christians teaching hymns. Composed by Jonadav Keki (J.J. Keki and Gershom Sizoku’s father). Influenced by Protestant worship. Text in Luganda.

15) Psalm 93 (2:44) – Another Christian hymn-sounding song. (“Musa?”). Text in Luganda. Melody by Jacob Mwosuko.

16) Kiddush and Motzi (Sabbath Blessing over Wine and Bread) (1:11) – The blessings over bread and wine (different tunes than I’m used to). (In Hebrew). Melody by Gershom Sizomu.

17) Psalm 121 (1:31) – With jingle bells! Text in Luganda. Melody by Miriam Keki (1980’s).

18) Maimuna (2:13) – Crazy yips, ululations, whistles — too much! J.J.Keki’s campaign song for chairman of Namonyonyi subcounty. He first ran unsuccessfully in 2000, and then again at a later date, after 9/11/2001, which was successful (Keki was walking up to the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, when the first plane hit the tower). Based on a modified version of a Bagisu circumcision song, although Abayudaya do not participate in Bagisu circumcision rituals, but have close contact with them. Maimuna is a woman’s name. “Maimuna, the animal is in the trap. Maimuna, ‘Where are we going?’ You are required to go to school before you obtain leadership positions.” The final line is sung with an alternated response: “J.J.”, “Keki”. This sounds like the situation they were in under British Colonial rule, not Judaism.

19) Hinei Ma Tov (Behold How Good it is for Brothers to Dwell Together) (1:23) – Hebrew mistakes again (adding an “i” after a word where it doesn’t really belong, and a “u”). Different tune, also. Text in Luganda and Hebrew. Group composition of the Young Jewish Club in the 1980’s.

20) Ali Omu Yekka (My Only One) (4:45) – A song with musical accompaniment. It’s very nice. Some words include: “My Beloved”, ” My Doctor”, “My Wealth… the only one I choose”. Sounds rather like stereotyping of the Jews, no? Sounds like a choice based on acquiring traits by association, as if talismanic, no? Text in Luganda by J.J. Keki. Melody by J.J. Keki.

21) Psalm 150 (3:33) – I started singing along; I must know some of the tune. Text in Luganda, with last verse in Hebrew. Melody by J.J. Keki.

22) Deuteronomy 32:8 / Song Two (Selection) (0:35) – A chant. Text in Luganda. Adapted by Kakungulu, founder of the Abayudaya, from Malakite melodies. This song is no longer used, except at sad occasions.

23) Deuteronomy 32:39 / Song Eight (3:35) – Slow singing by men. Text in Luganda (some seemed to sound like Arabic: I thought I heard the word, “Sura,” meaning, ‘Chapter.’). Adapted by Kakungulu, founder of the Abayudaya, from a Malakite melody. Sung by J.J. Keki, Gershom Sizomu, Aaron Kintu Moses, and their mother, Devorah (they are one family). This song is no longer used, except at sad occasions.

24) Psalm 130 (1:52) – A little ditty. Text in Luganda. Melody by Yael Keki. This song is only used for sad occasions.

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