Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Do you know any Abayudaya Jews?

Eight Musical Days of Hanukkah - Day 4: The Abayudaya!
The Hanukkah CD of the day requires a quick history lesson. The Abayudaya are a very small sect of Jewish people (estimates range between 500 and 1000 people total) who live in Eastern Uganda. They are not ethnic Jews, in the sense that, for example, Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews are. Rather, they were converted by an obscure regional military leader called Semei Kakungulu sometime around 1920.

They live much as their neighbors do, as subsistence farmers, but keep kosher, celebrate Jewish festivals, observe Shabbat, and are, spiritually, fully Jewish. It's pretty amazing, frankly, that they've managed to survive so much turmoil (the reign of Idi Amin was particularly devastating) and a humble little album from Smithsonian Folkways Records brought them to international attention in 2003.

This CD, simply titled Abayudaya: Music From the Jewish People of Uganda is pretty incredible. The Abayudaya have managed to create a pretty perfect mix of African rhythms and harmonies with Jewish spirituality and sometimes even melodies. They're clearly a musical people; the CD features men, women and children all participating in extremely joyful and lively praise music, completely different than the traditional Jewish music of Europe. The songs are in Lugandan (a main language of Uganda) and Hebrew, with some other local languages and phrases thrown in as well. It is, in a word, enchanting. Check it out for yourself!

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