February is African-American History month. And the history of American music is a story of blacks and Jews working in, literally, harmony. Even back in the earliest part of the 20th Century, African-American singer Paul Robeson performed spirituals alongside Yiddish folksong, while the first racially integrated ensemble was led by Jewish bandleader Benny Goodman.
More recently, explicitly Jewish music has been made by bands— or even individuals— who combine African-American and Jewish elements.
Take Joshua Nelson, the self-proclaimed Prince of Kosher Gospel Music. He has fused gospel sounds and Jewish content, both in his work and his life. In his career, he has shared a stage with both Aretha Franklin and the Klezmatics. When not performing or recording, Nelson is both a Hebrew teacher at a synagogue school… and the director of music at a Baptist church. Hear his “Adon Olam.”
More Jewish-gospel fusion can be heard on a recent recording by Neshama Carlebach. On Higher and Higher, she uses the 24-voice Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir as backup singers while performing the music of her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Both Carlebach and the choir sing in both English and Hebrew. (My review of the album is here, my interview with her about the album is here, and you can hear samples of the music itself by going here and clicking “Music.”
On a more jazzy note is the Afro-Semitic Experience, a combo co-founded by a Jewish bassist, David Chevan (my podcast with him can be heard here and African-American pianist Warren Byrd. The band has recorded a half-dozen albums containing both Jewish and African-American liturgical songs with a mix of modern and traditional instruments. Hear their “Adon Olam.”
Other interesting music comes from Jews who are not African-American, but simply African. Many of the Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel (thanks, in part, to JUF) have become musical performers. One standout is Alula Tzadik, who performs under his first name. In his music, one can clearly hear the African basis of reggae music— and in his lyrics, the Jewish influence on Rasta and reggae imagery. Strictly speaking, his reggae is only one part of his sound, which is largely East African.
Southwest of Ethiopia is the nation of Uganda. There, in 1919, a regional governor came upon a Bible left by Christian missionaries. He read it… and converted to Judaism. Then he converted the rest of his people. Called the Abayudaya, the community has been connected to the larger Jewish world through an organization called Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), which integrates such far-flung Jewish communities with the rest of the Jewish world. This organization published an album of original Abayudaya melodies to Jewish songs. Then the Smithsonian Folkways label produced another album of their music, which was nominated for a Grammy. (One note— in the Ugandan language, all words end in vowels, which affects their pronunciation of Hebrew.)
Three notable mainstream African-American singers who converted to Judaism were Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson, and Nell Carter. Carter, remembered as an actress for her sitcom Gimme a Break, once recorded a gospel-inflected version of the Chanukah song “Rock of Ages.” It’s track 6.
The centrality of the Scriptures and their rich imagery… the historical arc from oppression to liberation… the values of freedom, responsibility, and hope— all are shared by both peoples. Enjoying the merger of Jewish liturgy with gospel, jazz, reggae, and African sounds is a fascinating way to see how Jewish and African-American cultures have influenced each other. It’s also just great music.