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Music of the Abayudaya

“The community elder of Nomahtumba leads his family in dance to celebrate the arrival of a foreign visitor,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

“Hinei Ma Tov,” sing the Abayudaya at feasts and festive gatherings: “Behold how good it is for brothers to dwell together.” The Abayudaya’s version of this song, based on Psalm 133, combines Hebrew and Luganda, and it expresses the joy of coming together in celebration. This particular composition (included on the full length CD that accompanies Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, published by Abbeville Press) dates back to the Young Jewish Club, which was established to help revive the Jewish heritage of the Abayudaya after the oppressive Idi Amin reign ended in 1979.

Music is central to the Abayudaya’s worship, their daily life, and their sense of community and Jewish identity. Jeffrey Summit—an ethnomusicologist and author of the essay “Abayudaya Music of Worship and Celebration,” included in Abayudaya—traveled with Richard Sobol to Uganda after listening to the initial recordings Sobol made, on his first visit to the Abayudaya, of the their songs and psalms. Their music mixes African folk rhythms with the traditional liturgy of Jewish worship, and the combination is striking and expressive.

Musicians in the villages share instruments, such as the local adungu, drums, and a few communal guitars, and in recent years visitors to the community brought an electric keyboard. In part, the Abayudaya’s music helped bring them to the attention of the world. Since the time of Kakungulu, Abayudaya musicians have been composing their own melodies for the Hebrew psalms, and they sing in Hebrew, English, and Luganda, and as more and more visitors arrive to pay respects and to share knowledge, they continue to adapt and incorporate new ideas and melodies into their compositions. As Summit describes:

After living in isolation and persecution, they found it hard to believe that Jews halfway around the world were singing Abayudaya compositions. They said, “Now, we feel like we really have arrived and are one people.” J.J. continued, “As we hear them sing our songs, we feel encouraged, and our isolation has been solved. Our music is important, and our compositions are respected.” His brother Aaron added, “We are getting connected. We were saved by our music.”

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