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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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To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on Abayudaya. Click here and use code BLACK HISTORY 2013 at checkout to save 30% off the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code BLACK HISTORY 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.

History of the Abayudaya

“In the Putti Synagogue a young man, who is still learning Hebrew, reads from a tattered copy of the Bible translated into Luganda,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

We’d like to continue the story we started last time, of the founding of the Abayudaya in the early 1920s by Semei Kakungulu. In his luminous book, Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, published by Abbeville Press, Richard Sobol relates the origin and history of this isolated Jewish community, which has persevered through overwhelming hardships for four generations in eastern Uganda. As we mentioned in our last post, after Kakungulu’s disenchantment with the British colonial government, he faced a personal religious crisis. Sobol recounts:

As he looked around, he was troubled and confused that the British and French Christians whom he had met had abandoned the basic principles of the Hebrews… After several days in seclusion he emerged and ripped the missionary Bible in half, discarding the New Testament and beseeching his three thousand followers to adhere to Moses’ commandments.

Once Kakungulu decided to adopt the Jewish faith, his first step was to put into practice those commandments: he circumcised himself and his sons, his family prepared all food according to the laws of kashrut, and he began observance of the Sabbath. He handwrote his own “guidebook” in Lugandan in order to ensure proper understanding of the Torah for his followers. Several years passed before the community had any contact with other Jews. Rabbi Samson Mogombe still remembers their first Jewish visitor, and he recalls:

In 1926 we were visited by Yosefu, who was a Jewish trader from Yemen. He took an interest in our community and came to live with Semei Kakungulu. He taught us how to perform ritual slaughter. He also taught us the  Hebrew names for the months and the Hebrew alphabet. Yosefu presented us with a large Bible written in Hebrew and English. For the first time I learned that there are many Jews around the world—in the USA, Europe, South Africa, and Israel.

It was not until 2002—more than eighty years after Kakungulu’s adoption of the Jewish faith—that a rabbinic court arrived in Uganda to officially convert more than 300 practicing Abayudaya. When devout members of the group questioned the significance of the conversion, considering their lifelong devotion to the Torah, community leader Rabbi Gershom Sizomu replied:

Call it a confirmation, if that will help you to accept it. It is time to end our isolation. We have always known who we are. We have always been Jews. That will not change.

“Rabbi Gershom Sizomu holds the Torah at the Moses Synagogue and recites the prayer affirming the oneness of God,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

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To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on Abayudaya. Click here and use code BLACK HISTORY 2013 at checkout to save 30% off the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code BLACK HISTORY 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.

Portrait of the Abayudaya: Rabbi Samson Mogombe

“Rabbi Samson Mogombe in the doorway of his home in the community of Namanyoni,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

In the winter of 2000 I sent a note to a number of friends and colleagues letting them know that I was heading to Uganda to look for some Bantu Jews and inquiring if anyone wanted to come along. Most people wrote back saying: “Good luck… You are crazy.”

This is how Richard Sobol recalls the beginning of his two-year effort with the Abayudaya—which would become a triumph of photojournalism, ethnomusicology, and the preservation of oral histories. Of course, Sobol was not crazy. He was just one of the first few outsiders to learn about the Abayudaya (which means “the Jewish people” in the community’s native Luganda), and his work has helped to spread knowledge of their culture and their courage, their history of struggle and hope.

You may be asking yourself: but who are they? How did a group of subsistence farmers in eastern Uganda come to establish a community committed to the traditions and practice of the Jewish faith? Even more remarkably, how did they do so with no initial outside influence or assistance? Sobol tells their extraordinary story in his book Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, published by Abbeville Press, which features his stunning, full color photoessays. The photographs collected in this volume illuminate the Abayudaya and their way of life, and each portrait sings its own story in harmony with the community’s history.

That history begins with Semei Kakungulu—a renowned buffalo hunter, warrior, and local leader, whom the British military enlisted to aid in their effort to colonize Uganda. The British rewarded Kakungulu’s twenty years of service with betrayal and withdrawal of their support. Kakungulu went into seclusion and ultimately found inspiration in the Old Testament, vowing, as Sobol explains, “to return to what he felt was the authentic message of the Bible as it was given to the Jews.”

During his time in Uganda, Sobol had the opportunity to connect with community elders, including then-93-year-old Rabbi Samson Mogombe, who was one of the first disciples of Semei Kakungulu in the 1920s. Rabbi Mogombe now has over eighty children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to carry on his memory and his faith. Sobol shares with us a moment of tenderness between Rabbi Mogombe and his family, after singing a psalm together:

Samson…wipes a tear from his eye and says, “This story of Moses is my story too, and it will be my children who will see the land of Israel, not me. … In the Book of Prophets I have read that as Jews we are promised everlasting life in the world to come. I have lived a long life and will be extremely happy to die as a Jew.”

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To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on Abayudaya. Click here and use code BLACK HISTORY 2013 at checkout to save 30% off the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code BLACK HISTORY 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.