Abayudaya - Music from the Jewish People of Uganda

sitting outside the synagogue with a guitar. lovely

Abayudaya - Music from the Jewish People of Uganda
Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40504, 2004

Web: www.folkways.si.edu

One of the classics of Jewish literature ("The Kuzari," by Yehuda Ha-Levi) speaks of the debate between representatives of the Jews, Christians, and Moslems that led to the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism. In recent years we have become aware of a modern version of the story, in which a tribal leader in what is now Uganda, in reaction to colonialism and Protestant missionaries, decides to convert to Judaism. But there aren't any Jews in that part of Africa, so first the tribes evolve their own version of Judaism from the TaNaKh. Then, as they encounter Jews in nearby areas, they learn Hebrew and Hebrew prayers, Jewish customs such as kashruth. At times, as under Idi Amin, and then again under Milton Obote, they are persecuted for their faith, but most remain steadfast. In the 1980s, a younger generation becomes more militant in holding onto the faith and in writing new songs. Since the 1990s there has been increasing traffic with the Jewish community, including two residencies by Lubavitch. Now, Tufts University Hillel Director, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, has made these recordings for Smithsonian Folkways. To everybody's surprise, these recordings have even been nominated for a Grammy—an award they richly merit.

What Rabbi Summit has captured is beautiful music. Although most of the melodies are African, in styles that sometimes bear resemblance to Ladyship Black Mambazo, other times to other non-pop African melodies, the words are a fascinating mix of local African languages, Hebrew, and even English. Included are not only liturgical songs, but lullabies and folk songs, the better to get a picture of the Abuyadaya's traditions including, but not limited to Judaism. (Think of a recording of Yiddish or Sephardic folksong limited only to prayer!)

Still, it is absolutely mind-boggling to hear the adaptation of "I am a soldier" to include the Hebrew text, "I am a soldier in the army of the Lord!" sung here by children in the community's Hadassah Nursery School. Equally new and wonderful is the "Twagala Torah" (We love the Torah) which includes the Hebrew familiar to Jews around the world, "Blessed [is He] who has given the Torah to His people Israel in His holiness". Likewise, the wonderful polyphonic "Adon Olam" (or the similar "Lekha Dodi"). That's one that may start appearing in synagogues outside Uganda as quickly as people hear it. And then, it is equally surprising, if less so upon reflection, to hear the Kiddush sung to the very traditional mainstream Jewish melody with which I grew up!

The CD is accompanied by excellent notes on the history of the Abuyadaya (in fascinating accord with custom throughout the world for Yidn, Yehudim, and Jews of all languages, "Abuyadaya" is local language for "the Jews") and excellent notes on the songs and on making the recordings. Most of the recordings are a capella, although sometimes there is drum or even a small combo (keyboard, guitar, drums) as on "We are Happy"—a song that includes an English refrain and Hebrew ("Shiru, Shiru, hallelujah"), or on "Ali omu yekka".

The Abuyadaya have chosen Judaism, and even as they have grown closer to mainstream Jewish traditions and Halacha (Jewish law), they have also brought to Judaism their own customs and music. Like Jewish communities throughout the world, they have also faced antisemitism and oppression, yet persevered and continued to raise their voices in song. We are all the richer for it. Many kudos, also, to Rabbi Summit for recording their voices and bringing them to the rest of us. Now, everyone who reads this and knows someone on the Grammys committee, let your voice be raised so that this recording gets the recognition it deserves.


  1. Psalm 136 3:24
  2. Katonda oyo nalimana—God is all-knowing 4:09
  3. Hiwumbe awumba—God creates and then destroys 2:31
  4. Mwana talitambula—The child will never walk 1:18
  5. Mwana, ngolera—Baby, keep quiet 0:49
  6. Tulo, tulo—Sleep, sleep 0:52
  7. I am a soldier 0:46
  8. Mi khamokhah—Who is like you [, O God]? 0:18
  9. Kabbila—The patch of forest 3:49
  10. Twagala Torah—We love the Torah 1:33
  11. We are happy 3:25
  12. Adon Olam—Master of the world 1:53
  13. Lekhah, Dodi—Come, my beloved 5:21
  14. Psalm 92 4:59
  15. Psalm 93 2:44
  16. Kiddush and motzi—Sabbath blessing over wine and bread 1:11
  17. Psalm 121 1:31
  18. Maimuna 2:13
  19. Hinei ma tov—Behold how good [it is for brothers to dwell together] 1:23
  20. Ali omu yekka—My only one 4:45
  21. Psalm 150 3:33
  22. Deuteronomy 32:8, Song two (selection) 0:35
  23. Deuteronomy 32:39-43, song eight 3:35
  24. Psalm 130 1:52

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