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Sub-Saharan Fusions

How an American saxophonist came to cut a record with a group of Ugandan Jews

Alexander Gelfand
May 27, 2010
Mike Cohen with musicans in Putti, Uganda.(Courtesy Mike Cohen)
Mike Cohen with musicans in Putti, Uganda.(Courtesy Mike Cohen)

When asked about what led him to the Jewish village of Putti, in Uganda, Mike Cohen, a New York-based woodwind player, says “coffee,” which is not how you expect a conversation about a recording—in this case,When I Wake Up: The Music of Putti, a disc of songs by the Abayudaya—to begin.

Then again, the Abayudaya are themselves rather unexpected: a community of fewer than 1,000 Jews living amidst the rolling hills of eastern Uganda, descendants of an early-20th-century military leader whose reading of the Old Testament led him to embrace Judaism.

By the 1960s, there were roughly 10,000 Abayudaya. (The word means “people of Judah” in Luganda, the principal language of the Baganda, the ethnic group to which they belong.) But isolated from world Jewry and persecuted by Idi Amin in the 1970s, the community withered to a few hundred. Today, it hovers somewhere around 800—all members of an exclusive club of indigenous sub-Saharan Jews that includes the Lemba of Southern Africa, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, and the Home of Israel in Ghana.

Organizations like Kulanu and the Committee To Save Ugandan Jewry provide aid to the Abayudaya, who grow coffee and practice subsistence farming in five small villages. The South African filmmaker Guy Lieberman made a documentary about them. And every now and then, someone issues a recording of their music.

Those recordings caught Cohen’s attention, and when he learned that the Abayudaya grew coffee, he approached Enosh Keki Mainah, the religious leader of the Orthodox village of Putti—perhaps the poorest of the Abayudaya settlements and one that lacks both electricity and running water—with a business proposition. “I’m a huge coffee drinker, so I asked if there was any way we could get their coffee over here,” Cohen says. “I told him, ‘I’d rather give you the money than Fairway.’ ”

The coffee-exporting scheme never took off, but in the course of their conversations, Cohen and Mainah began chatting about music, and in 2008, the idea of a recording was hatched. It made sense: In the late 1990s, Kulanu produced Shalom Everybody Everywhere!: Introducing the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda as a fund-raising tool for another group of Abayudaya; and a follow-up recording by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda, was nominated for a Grammy. So, in January of 2009, Cohen and his friend David Prager traveled to Uganda to record the music of Mainah and his fellow congregants.

It was quite an adventure. The studio that Cohen had booked in advance turned out to be totally inadequate. “I took one look at it and said, ‘I’m screwed.’ ” The rolling blackouts and culture shock didn’t help, either. “Looking back now, I’m really amazed that we pulled it off, and that it sounds as good as it does,” he says.

And it’s true: When I Wake Up really does sound good. Cohen ultimately recorded the Putti around a single microphone in the conference room at his hotel, but the audio quality is studio-grade.

When I Wake Up is not a field recording that aims to represent precisely what you’d hear in an Abayudaya village. Instead, it’s a musical collaboration between Cohen, the Western musicians whose parts he overdubbed back in New York, and the Abayudaya themselves. In that sense, it bears some relationship to the work that Jeremiah Lockwood and The Sway Machinery have recently done with African musicians in Mali, first at the Festival au Desert, and later in a studio in Bamako.

Lockwood, who has long been fascinated with both African-American and African music, saw his trip to Mali as an opportunity to build musical and cultural bridges between Western Jews and African Muslims; and the results released thus far point toward a fascinating, if sometimes curious, meeting between the glories of Malian pop and The Sway Machinery’s own eccentric blend of cantorial music, Afro-pop, and indie rock.

In contrast, When I Wake Up is more narrowly African in its aesthetic—which is not to say that it isn’t wildly eclectic in its own way. The Abayudaya employ a few familiar melodies, Western borrowings they’ve acquired from visiting foreigners, from the descendants of Jewish immigrants like those belonging to the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, and from their own travels abroad. But for the most part, their music, though built around prayers and psalms in English, Hebrew, and Luganda, is straight-up East African pop. And that is a musical world unto itself, one that encompasses indigenous harp and lyre music; the “fingerstyle” guitar of Mwanda Jean Bosco and Faustino Okello; Zairian soukous; and the choral music imported by Western missionaries.

Put it all in the blender, and you get an irresistible combination of rich vocal harmonies, lyrical guitar playing, and delicately propulsive rhythms. Like West African palm wine guitar, yet another strand in the East African musical quilt, the Abayudaya’s default musical idiom has a buoyant quality; the melodies are infectious, and the music seems equally suitable to listening or dancing. That’s true even when the lyrics are far from lighthearted, as on “Hatred,” a song about anti-Semitism. Most of the tracks on the album are psalms set to melodies by Mainah’s mother, with a few ringers like “Am Israel Chai” and the Passover seder’s “Ehad My Yodea” that have been turned into insanely catchy Afro-pop tunes.

All proceeds from album sales go directly to Putti. “The music was recorded with the purpose of making the Putti village Jewish members become economically independent through provision of secular education to children, construction of a clinic, and creation of other income-generating sources like construction of a school and a guest house,” Mainah wrote in an email. But the few thousand dollars generated so far have been used to address more immediate needs: corn and beans to help make up for losses incurred amid unusually heavy rains and mosquito nets to help stave off malaria.

Cohen, meanwhile, is giving talks about his trip and trying to arrange performances of the music of the Abayudaya at local colleges and universities, all in hopes of generating further interest—and money.

“I’d like to see a lot more go back,” he says. “They need it. They’ve had it rough.”

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

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