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'A Coat of Many Colors'

'A Coat of Many Colors'A new CD produced by a Tufts professor highlights the special blend of Hebrew and African musical traditions from a small Jewish community in Uganda. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.05.04] Of the 26 million people who live in the African country of Uganda, most are Christian or Muslim. But the area is also the little-known home to a small Jewish community of 600 members in the eastern portion of the state. Leaders of the community -- called the Abayudaya -- say that their unlikely tradition is akin to one part of Joseph's coat of many colors. And according to a Tufts expert who recently recorded an album of their songs, their music is as colorful as their culture.

"Music is a wonderfully rich way to understand who people are," Jeffrey Summit -- associate professor of music -- told The Boston Globe.

Summit - a rabbi who also leads Tufts' Hillel - recently recorded and compiled "Abayudaya, Music from the Jewish People of Uganda," a collection of music by the one-of-a-kind community.

"Abayudaya in buganda means ‘the Jewish people.'" Summit told National Public Radio. "This is a group of people who converted to Judaism about 80 years ago when their founder, Semei Kakungulu -- a powerful Buganda leader in the time -- decided that he was going to reject British colonial rule. When he did that he also rejected the Anglican Christianity that went along with the British, but he was so taken with the truth of the five books of Moses - basically the text of Judaism - that he said ‘I am going to follow these traditions.'"

As the Tufts ethnomusicologist told the Globe, the result was not only the beginning of a unique religious community, but the creation of a mixture of music unlike that found anywhere else in the world.

"The nature of the musical and liturgical traditions of this community is this wonderful blend of local Ugandan musical traditions, local East African traditions, and a developing Hebrew liturgy -- a liturgy that really brings together a synthesis of [what] this community is," Summit told the Globe.

"They've basically drawn from their own traditions to make a liturgy that feels both Jewish and African to them," he told NPR.

According to Summit, the music of the Abayudaya is a celebration of their faith and acts as an outlet during the hard times of famine and AIDS.

"The Abayudaya told me ...‘We have been saved by our music,' Summit told NPR. "It acts to provide help and sustenance to people when they are ill."

Now, with the help of local sound engineer John Servies, Summit has recorded a CD of their music for all to hear.

"To record the CD, Summit and Servies transformed a grass hut on the outskirts of the central village of Mbale into a makeshift recording studio which became a magnet for local residents," reported the Globe.

The result is an album that is receiving play on college radio stations and public radio - an unexpected forum considering the music's origins. "[The Abayudaya] sing together all the time," Summit told the Globe. "Making music together is not a professional activity."

According to the Tufts professor, the CD will help to preserve the unique musical tradition, an important goal for leaders in the community.

"One of the leaders of the community said to me, ‘We have to keep with our own traditional music because if we [didn't] there would be no need for you to come to visit the Abayudaya." Summit told NPR.

"This leader said to me," Summit continued, "‘Why did God place some Jews in Uganda and some in America? I think the purpose was to make it a colorful world. We're all one people, but like Jacob's coat, we're a coat of many colors.'"

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