Friday, February 6, 2009

The Afro-Semitic Experience

So, I just returned from a delightful Friday night service at Congregation Adas Emuno, a very special (as they say on TV) service. Adas Emuno is a Reform synagogue, which means that there's a great deal of room for experimentation and innovation in our approach to religious ritual. And our spiritual leader, Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, is a Cantor, which means that we're very much musically oriented. And this week we had a musical service featuring a band called The Afro-Semitic Experience. The music was fabulous, and the place was packed, standing room only, something that we only see on the High Holy Days (that's Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashonah in case you don't know).

One reason for the big turnout was that one of our Trustees, Virginia Gitter, was able to get the Bergen Record, aka the North Jeresey Record (one of the biggest papers in the country actually, although not as well known as the ones across the Hudson) to run an article about it yesterday (Thursday, February 5, 2009). If you want to go over to their site to read the article click here. Otherwise, stick around, I'll walk you through it. The article is written by John Chadwick, a Record staff writer, and it's entitled, "Multiracial ensemble meshes rich tradition." So, let's get started:

When a Jewish bass player and an African-American pianist decided to perform sacred songs, they didn't know how their respective musical and spiritual traditions would mesh.

Their first gig, in the late 1990s, was at a Connecticut synagogue's Martin Luther King tribute service.

"I had never even been to a synagogue before," said Warren Byrd, the pianist. "This was something totally brand new for me."

Yet minutes into the gig, which included a slow, meditative version of the Jewish liturgical standard "Shalom Aleichem," Byrd knew that he and bassist David Chevan were on to something.

"We were truly coming together in a way that people hadn't chosen to come together before," Byrd said. "Grandiosity was present to some degree."

That was the beginning of the Afro-Semitic Experience, a multi-racial ensemble that has set out to preserve, interpret and fuse Jewish and African-American musical traditions.

David was pretty much the spokesman for the group tonight, and he talked a little about how he and Warren go back a long way. Anyway, at this point, the article gets to our congregation:

On Friday, the group, now a six-piece band, will bring its complex, jazzy music and its message of spiritual brotherhood to a Shabbat service at Congregation Adas Emuno, a Reform synagogue in Leonia. They will perform during the service and accompany the congregation's spiritual leader, Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro.

Spencer-Shapiro said she saw the Afro-Semitic Experience during her student days in New York City and was impressed.

"I kind of put it away in a mental file because I knew wherever I ended up, one day I would want them to perform," Spencer-Shapiro said. "What they do is so special."

She said the band is a good fit for Adas Emuno, which practices "big tent Judaism." The synagogue of 120 families has some interfaith couples and some interracial families.

"It is a very liberal, open congregation," Spencer-Shapiro said. "Our doors are open and everyone is welcome."

Good job, Cantor! And now, let's learn more about the band:

The Afro-Semitic Experience draws from a range of influences — Duke Ellington, Hebrew cantorial music, black spirituals. In concert, the group can move from a danceable groove to a haunting Sephardic melody to a spacey, free jazz accompaniment of the 23rd Psalm.

"It's really a non-dogmatic approach," said Chevan, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Amherst, Mass. "We are not looking at the things that are specific to one religion or another, but the things that we have in common, like community, coming together, healing the sick and taking care of the poor."

Chevan was playing in a jazz band with Byrd in the late 1990s when one night he heard Byrd playing the gospel song "Soon and Very Soon," by Andrae Crouch. The two ended up talking about the relationship between religion and jazz and began showing each other songs.

"I was showing him some synagogue things, some Passover melodies, and he was showing me some African-American church things, such as "Precious Lord Take my Hand," said Chevan, a music professor at Southern Connecticut State University.

That exchange led to the duo's first gig at Chevan's synagogue. Pleased at the response, they recruited more musicians and began attracting a following through word of mouth. They currently play 35 to 40 shows a year at houses of worship and multicultural centers, balancing the gigs with their own musical careers.

The current lineup of three whites and three blacks isn't strictly divided between Christians and Jews. One member is a Lebanese Christian. Another follows an African folk religion.

Chevan attends a liberal Reform synagogue, but draws from many Jewish influences, both traditional and postmodern.

Byrd grew up in urban Hartford, steeped in gospel music, and became an accomplished jazz musician who has toured internationally and played with artists such as Archie Shepp.

He describes the Afro-Semitic Experience as "spiritual jazz."

Spiritual jazz, yes, that's the phrase I was looking for, because the music really defies easy categorization. Oh, and Warren has just a little more to say:

"Our intent is to help people move beyond themselves and see things in broader terms and see we are all connected," he said. "And to then become peaceful in that realization and move forward in life as we face the struggles of simply being alive."

"That is as deeply spiritual as you can be."

Actually, if you go to their website, THE AFRO-SEMITIC EXPERIENCE, it says,

Imagine a band that understands and can present interpretations of music from traditions as rich as Gospel, Klezmer, Nigunim, Spirituals, and Swing and you have the Afro-Semitic Experience. This is a group that is as comfortable playing a freylakh as they are swinging a blues, that knows how to playing either a bulgar or some funk. Multi-cultural soul.

Anyway, they have CDs for sale (I'm getting them myself), and they play at religious services, clubs, concerts, and still do wedding and Bar Mitzvahs! And you can listen to three of their songs on their website too, just click here to go to that page. They played the first song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," as the first part of their music sermon, and it was just wonderful. Give it a listen, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

So, what's the occasion, you might ask? Go ahead, ask... Ok, since you ask, the Sabbath this particular week is called Shabbat Shira, because the Torah portion for this week comes from the Book of Exodus, including chapter 15, which contains the oldest recorded lyrics to a song, the song the Israelites sing after Moses parts the Red Sea, leads them safely across, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit until they are drowned by God. The Torah scroll was later held up, and we could see that this portion had an unusual layout that indicated that it was a poetry or lyrics--most of the Torah has a very basic layout to it, as this was not a consideration in the ancient world, not much of a consideration until Gutenberg invented his printing press, really. Anyway, here's a translation that loses the beautiful poetry of the Hebrew, but gets across an idea of what the lyrics are about:

1. Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea. 2. The Eternal's strength and His vengeance were my salvation; this is my God, and I will make Him a habitation, the God of my father, and I will ascribe to Him exaltation. 3. The Lord is a Master of war; the Lord is His Name. 4. Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea, and the elite of his officers sank in the Red Sea. 5. The depths covered them; they descended into the depths like a stone. 6. Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe. 7. And with Your great pride You tear down those who rise up against You; You send forth Your burning wrath; it devours them like straw. 8. And with the breath of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up; the running water stood erect like a wall; the depths congealed in the heart of the sea. 9. [Because] the enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will share the booty; my desire will be filled from them; I will draw my sword, my hand will impoverish them. 10. You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the powerful waters. 11. Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders! 12. You inclined Your right hand; the earth swallowed them up. 13. With Your loving kindness You led the people You redeemed; You led [them] with Your might to Your holy abode. 14. People heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia. 15. Then the chieftains of Edom were startled; [as for] the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted. 16. May dread and fright fall upon them; with the arm of Your greatness may they become as still as a stone, until Your people cross over, O Lord, until this nation that You have acquired crosses over. 17. You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made, O Lord; the sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded. 18. The Lord will reign to all eternity 19. When Pharaoh's horses came with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought the waters of the sea back upon them, and the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, 20. Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. 21. And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.

The portion was sung by our Cantor in an especially melodic and beautiful manner. And then David Chevan spoke to the congregation and explained that this Torah portion is especially meaninful to all of them, and to all of us, because it is about the exact moment of transition from slavery to freedom. We were slaves, we, all of us, were slaves on one side of the Red Sea, we were escaped slaves, with the mightiest army on earth rushing down upon us, and crossing the Red Sea was the crossing over from slavery to freedom. We were slaves, and now we are free.

Amen to that!

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