November 13, 2009
Abayudya music and stories
J.J. Keki will share stories and sing with King David students.
On his pioneer visit to Canada next week, Grammy-nominated musician and community leader Joab Jonadab (J.J.) Keki will make a stop at Vancouver's King David High School. He is touring North America to spread awareness about the Abayudaya – the Jews of Uganda.
For the day he is in Vancouver, Keki will tell stories, perform traditional Ugandan and Hebrew songs from his CDs and present a slide-show. He will perform at a morning assembly for KDHS students and at an evening public performance, before heading to San Francisco.
The origins of the Abayudaya date to 1919, when military commander and political leader Semei Kakungulu converted to Judaism. The Abayudaya are a group of largely subsistence farmers numbering about 1,000. Persecution under the Idi Amin government in the 1970s greatly affected their small population and many renounced their faith.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Judaic coordinator at KDHS, had the initiative to bring Keki to Vancouver, both to provide an opportunity for students to learn about lesser-known Jewish communities and to become informed about the history and customs of the Abayudaya and the hardships they face in Uganda.
In preparation for Keki's arrival, students will meet with former Vancouver journalist Lorne Mallin, whose six-month volunteer stint with the Abayudaya community in Nabugoye Hill involved teaching English and helping at an orphanage and at a cervical cancer screening program for women. Mallin will return to Kampala to work with the Ugandan headquarters of anti-poverty organization BRAC, Building Resources Across Communities (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee).
"He's going to talk to kids about the teens there and maybe how our teens here can connect up with them whether through e-mail or journalism or letter writing and see what we can do," Siegel said. "Aside from raising awareness with our kids about community we would also like to help support [the Abayudaya]."
Fundraising proceeds will go toward Kulanu, an American-based nonprofit organization for the support of marginalized Jewish communities around the world; the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, an interfaith coffee cooperative of Christians, Muslims and Jews that Keki formed in 2003; and directly to the Abayudaya community to build two Jewish schools.
A group of KDHS students and parents will open the performance with a rendition of Lecha Dodi in Lugandan, the Ugandan language, accompanied by guitar, darkova (a Turkish metal drum) and a cajon (a South American square drum). Keki will join the last verse before launching into his solo program of traditional melodies and his own compositions.
"I think it's the most beautiful welcome that anyone can have after traveling across the world by playing and singing their music for them," said Cantor Mike Zoosman from Beth Israel. Zoosman has been rehearsing with the students in the weeks leading up to Keki's arrival. In the Lugandan-influenced Hebrew version of Lecha Dodi, the lyrics all end with vowels and, Zoosman said, it's been "a trick" to get the pronunciation right.
Another trick was in getting Keki into Canada after experiencing various visa complications. Originally, Athalia Nalongo, the sister of Abayudayan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was going to visit, but she was rejected by the United States embassy, on the grounds that the Abayudaya "lack strong ties to Uganda," Mallin said.
"We arranged this a long time ago but it was going back and forth and back and forth whether or not they would actually allow him [in] and then the same thing to get over stuff we want to sell," Siegel said. Keki had previously held a valid visa, so that worked in his favor.
Tickets to the Nov. 19 concert are $10 and are available by calling 604-263-9700, ext. 152. KDHS students will be selling two of Keki's albums, as well as coffee from the Peace Kawomera Cooperative.
Jeanie Keogh is a Vancouver freelance writer.