Monday, April 22, 2013

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda.A CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JEFFREY SUMMIT

COFFEE CONVERSATIONS is a new section of the blog, profiling inspiring and interesting people.  Essentially, they are conversations with extraordinary human beings about art, design, music, and world events, usually over a cup of coffee.  This particular conversation was had over the phone, but no doubt with coffee in hand.

A growing group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Mbale, Uganda have sought to create change in their own community, by taking on a lofty goal: interfaith peace through coffee and music.  Led by Jewish musician J.J Keki, the cooperative calls themselves Peace Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace.”  They grow, pick and process organic coffee, side-by-side, in a country that remains divided by religious and ethnic barriers.  Music is a strong part of Ugandan culture, used for communicative and joyous purposes; the farmers of Peace Kawomera follow in this tradition, writing and performing songs which promote their peaceful worldview, educate those around them, and celebrate the crop that brings them economic prosperity.

In 2001, J.J. Keki was invited to visit the states on a lecture tour.  While in line at the World Trade Center to view New York City’s skyline from above, he found himself in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, running for survival after witnessing the first plane strike the towers.  After Keki’s experience in New York, he returned to Uganda on a mission: to use his gifts and the resources around him to promote religious peace.  Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a research ethnomusicologist and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University in Boston, met Keki while recording his Grammy nominated album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005).  After being introduced by a friend to a recording of Peace Kawomera’s songs, Summit felt compelled to visit Mbale to hear the music himself.

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was recorded and produced by Summit.  Speaking to the rabbi by phone, the day after two bombs tore through crowded streets during the Boston Marathon, I remarked on the timeliness of the album’s release. “What better thing to put into the world right now, a project about peace,” I said. “You know, I wish it wasn’t so relevant,” he replied, clearly shaken by the events of the previous day.

In a short documentary filmed by Rabbi Summit in Uganda, Keki explains his driving philosophy: “Whatever you have, use it for peace.  If you have music, use music,” he says.  “We have coffee,” he explains.  And coffee may just be the perfect crop for peace.  He holds a ripe coffee cherry in his hand, peeling the skin to expose two beans inside.  “We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace” Keki says.  “You see this one?” he asks. “Two beans in each coffee. Which means it is friendly, it doesn’t want to live alone.”

Rabbi Summit traveled to Uganda three separate times, recording 400 farmers.  “Recording in East Africa is its’ own special challenge,” Summit told me.  Originally they set up recording sessions right in the middle of the vibrant, chaotic goings-on of the village, which, though beautiful and authentic, proved to be “very distracting” while recording.  “We [along with recording engineer John Servies] were out in the bush,” Rabbi Summit recalls, recording in rural landscapes, as well as finding acoustic solace in synagogues, mosques, and churches.  The music itself is a layering of women’s choral voices, African guitar music, and indigenous instruments — including the tube fiddle, shaker, and wooden xylophone — and even a Casio keyboard.

The songs are performed at community events, in an effort to attract others to join the cooperative.  Sung in various languages — including English, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew — the impact is far reaching.  These songs are used as engaging ways to transmit information.  Many are educational or instructional, such as “In Uganda, everyone grows coffee,” and “Construct a processing factory;” others celebrate peace, such as “Let all religions come together.”

An integral part of the success of Peace Kowomera is Fair Trade.  “It’s not just about paying people more,” Summit explained.  It helps fund important practices, including providing credit for famers to expand their coffee farms, preventing harmful child labor, and protecting the environment.  The benefits of Fair Trade are less obvious when the volatile coffee market is high, Summit told me.  “Coffee prices dip precipitously,” he explains. During these market lows is when large companies, taking advantage of desperate circumstances, offer attractively higher prices to farmers.  This short-sighted relief does not maintain stability; if during the the following year, the market jumps again, the farmer will sustain large cuts to prices.  Fair Trade provides a stable income, helping farmers weather the highs and lows of the market.  Most importantly, “For many farmers, the Fair Trade price is literally the difference between abject poverty and being able to afford malaria medication, basic health care, and school fees for their children,” Summit writes in the liner notes of the album.

The results of Keki’s efforts are nothing short of astounding.  In the liner notes of “Delicious Peace,” Rabbi Summit tells the story of two farmers of Peace Kawomera –Patrick, a Christian, and Mohamud, a Muslim — sitting down to lunch.  They told Rabbi Summit about their childhood, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, when they were not permitted to socialize with people of other faiths.  “When I asked if it was usual for a Christian and Muslim to eat together, they both laughed and said that even four years ago, before they joined the cooperative, it would have been inconceivable to them,” Rabbi Summit writes; he notes that outside of the cooperative, tensions and divisions are still present, an acknowledgement that interfaith cooperation remains an issue in Uganda.

How can we work to overcome religious and ethnic divisions in our own communities?  The answer is shockingly simple, according to these farmers.  “These communities have made peace a priority,” Summit explained.   They often speak of the importance of “being one” with others.  Summit recalls a time he was lectured about America’s fighting in Afghanistan.  “They didn’t understand,” he says, why we couldn’t “be one person” with all people.

Indeed, perhaps all citizens of the world should see the world as such.

Purchase Delicious Peace through Smithsonian Folkways, here.  All proceeds go towards supporting the children of Peace Kawomera members. Buy a bag of Delicious Peace coffee through Thanksgiving Coffee Company, here.

All photographs below taken by photojournalist Richard Sobol.

One Response to “A CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JEFFREY SUMMIT”

  1. Oliver Mar 13, 2014

    Magnificent project! Music and coffee probably won’t solve the issues. But I love the idea of celebrating peace and equality through them and overcoming (religious) boundaries…
    Thanks for the inspiration!


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