Samson Wamani in doorway of his home
The Abayudaya are a small (600 member) community of Ugandan Jews who embraced Judaism nearly 100 years ago during the period of English colonial rule. They live in a series of small villages near the eastern Ugandan town of Mbale (see accompanying map). I am indebted for the historical background that follows to Rabbi Jeffrey Summit‘s comprehensive liner notes for his CD, Abayudaya. Summit, Hillel director and professor of music at Tufts, has performed a labor of love in traveling to Uganda, taping the music and oral histories of this community, and compiling it in a wonderful book and CD (see graphic links here to both).
What is remarkable about the Abayudaya is that they do not claim direct Jewish ancestry like Beta Israel of Ethiopia or the Lemba of southern Africa (another amazing story). Instead, they tell the story of Semei Kakungulu, a military leader who allied himself with the British during the 1890s in their fight to assume colonial control of the country. He also converted to the Anglican Church in the hope of currying favor with his British overlords. Kakungulu expected that the British would honor their end of the bargain by making him king of eastern Uganda. He turned against the British in 1913 when they did not name him king. He also turned against the Anglican Church and joined a dissident Protestant church who regarded Saturday as Sabbath, ate no pork and followed Biblical practice allowing polygamy.
As he read from the Lugandan (the local language) translation of the Hebrew Bible, he embraced the Biblical precept that male babies should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. When he was told that such practice broke not only with Baganda (the local ethnic group) heritage but with Christianity, he reportedly replied: “If this is so then from this day on I am a Jew”. Kakungulu, as the elders tell the story circumcised himself and his sons (as did Abraham). Many of his followers followed suit. He practiced a forum of “proto-Judaism” and “developed the community’s Sabbath liturgy, which included preaching, reading selections from the Hebrew Bible in Luganda and singing selections from the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43).”
The story of the Abayudaya embrace of Judaism involves the nexus between religion, politics and power that has left an indelible impact throughout greater Jewish history as well. And what is equally remarkable is that the Abayudaya brand of Judaism developed mostly in isolation from the broader Jewish world. Certainly there were several formative encounters with other Jews over the decades of the 20th century, but not until the 1990s was there regular ongoing contact with the world Jewish community. And though its religion may have developed in isolation from world Jewry, the Abayudaya have known persecution, destitution and forced conversion not far removed from what happened to Spanish Jews in the 15th-16th centuries. When the brutal dictator, Idi Amin came to power, he cracked down hard on Abayudaya religious practices. They observed rituals in secret for if they were caught they faced prison. Thousands of them, faced with abject poverty and even starvation if they remained in the faith, preferred to convert. Even now, with such persecution a thing of the past only 20% of the original population remains Jewish.
The Abayudaya have a keen sense of the importance of maintaining their religious observances and musical tradition. In this passage, Rabbi Summit quotes two communal leaders on the subject interspersed with some thoughts of his own:
Israel Siriri told me: “We should continue to sing and teach our own melodies and traditions that have strengthened us over the years.” So too Keki expressed admiration for North American Jewish melodies, but that doesn’t mean that the Abayudaya should forget their own traditions. Uri Katula continued: “We need to sing our own traditional music. If not, there would be no need for you to come and see the Abayudaya. What would be the purpose? Would you be coming to learn? No. Because we would be doing what you do. And I doubt whether God likes that. Why did He place some Jews in Uganda and some in America? I think the purpose was to make it a colorful world.” Sizomu concluded, “We are one people, but like Jacob’s coat, we are a coat of many colors.”
In the last 85 years, this people developed a liturgy with music that borrowed from local folk tradition, Protestant hymn-singing and contemporary Ugandan music. Liturgical texts also are an amalgam of Hebrew, Lugandan and Protestant customs. You can clearly hear the Hebrew words when they sing. As a Jew who grew up within a strong religious tradition (though I was not deeply observant), it is moving to hear prayers and songs you clearly recognize but which are somehow transformed into something very different as if they had passed through a cultural looking glass into a new dimension. Listen to the Abayudaya version of the popular Shabbat song, Adon Olam.
Abayudaya liturgical music is utterly charming. The a capella choral settings of some prayers may owe a great deal to the hymn singing in African Protestant churches, but as far as I’m concerned, when I hear the Hebrew words sung that makes it an authentic Jewish musical experience. Other liturgical music which has simple instrumental accompaniment may owe a debt to Ugandan popular music, nevertheless I find it truly winning. I dare you not to smile when you listen to the music on Abayudaya. It is pure loveliness. I was heartsick that this recording did not win the world music Grammy (instead Ladysmith Black Mambazo won). How many Grammys has Ladysmith already won? How many more will they win? And how many chances do you think this struggling community will have to witness its music and traditions honored on a world stage in the person of the Grammys? It was a shame.
Summit enlisted the help of photographer Richard Sobol, who created a remarkable photographic record of life in Abayudaya villages and collected them in Abayudaya, a book he co-wrote with Summit. Sobol maintains a website which features these luminous documentary photographs. You can also hear a radio interview he did for this project on the BBC/PRI show, The World. Summit was also interviewed on NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show. There is a documentary film, Moving Heaven & Earth, about Ugandan Jews which is currently making the rounds of the Jewish film festival circuit.