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Co-founders of the group Chevan (L), and Byrd (R) with Alvin Carter Junior in centre




Violinist and guitarist Stacey Phillips and Alvin Carter Senior on Drum
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Finale
photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
CONCERT REVIEW: AFRO- SEMITIC EXPERIENCE AT RADY JCC TARBUT FESTIVAL- ARTISTIC RESPONSE TO ANTISEMITISM AND RASCISM

by Jane Enkin, November 25, 2011

The Afro-Semitic Experience closed out the musical offerings of the Rady JCC’s Tarbut festival on a high-note Nov 19, 2011, with a one of a kind musical fusion of Jewish and African American traditions. 

David Chevan stood on the Berney Theatre stage and sang Avadim Hayinu unaccompanied, smiling in encouragement as audience members joined in the simple Passover song. He paused to explain the importance of the words – we were slaves, now we are the children of the free. 

Chevan got the whole audience singing again. He picked up his upright bass, played an intricate slow solo variation on the melody, then signalled for the whole band to take the song through an energetic jazz rendition.
 
And that is the basis of the Afro-Semitic Experience – simple melodies from Jewish traditions and African and African American traditions, transformed through rich jazz arrangements and improvisation.  
 
The musicians make a statement just by being on stage together -- African Americans in gorgeous African-style clothes and hats, and European Americans in Western clothes, clearly listening to one another and enjoying each others' music.
 
From the detailed Afro-Semitic Experience website:
“Through our concerts, recordings and workshops, we are actively creating an artistic response to anti-Semitism and Racism of all forms. This is our ongoing mission and it is of central importance to us.”
 
As the group explored the songs, they played in a variety of musical genres. Ring shouts, introduced as an early African American form of danced musical prayer, were interpreted with gospel chords. A tribute to New Orleans had a Dixieland clarinet solo, and I think I heard a Caribbean sound in the percussion and a Cajun style violin solo in the piece as well. The players said they were excited to quote cantorial singing on their instruments. A Hasidic kaddish was played as a klezmer piece – the klezmer style came through most clearly in the distinctive beat on the drums.
 
Percussion was a terrific feature throughout concert, with Abu Alvin Carter Sr. on congas and his son, Babafemi Alvin Carter Jr. on drum kit. They played exciting solos and shared wonderful call and response playing with the other soloists.
 
The founders of the Afro-Semitic Experience are Jewish composer David Chevan on bass and African American Warren Byrd on piano. They came together to perform at an interfaith concert memorial service in 1998. At the Rady JCC , they performed one piece together from the years they worked as a duet. Will Bartlett played clarinet, saxophone and flute, and Stacey Phillips played violin and Dobro. Each of them played intriguing, delicate solos, with Byrd sometimes reaching into the piano for a harp-like sound, and the band worked up wonderful grooves together.
 
All the band members sang, and played beautiful solos. And each of them introduced pieces, drawing on history and sharing spiritual teachings. Every piece of music, and every recording the group has made, is connected for the musicians to a spiritual theme. They spoke of peace, healing, repentance, prayer, freedom and celebration.
 

This concert was certainly planned with a JCC audience in mind. Every Jewish tune was familiar to me and I'm sure to many. Often the introduction and my own associations stayed with me all through the piece. At other times, the melody was stated, and then I heard only enjoyable jazz, without much connection for me to the source. The band was at its strongest when text and intention joined with music. Even an original setting of Adon Olam by David Chevan suggested some of my own feelings about the prayer.

The music was beautiful, the band's stage presence was playful. Most important for me was the celebration of two traditions in which spirituality is not distinct from entertainment. Deep emotions of awe, request and praise, beauty and artistry and fun, Jewish music and African American music, traditional and original ideas, all dance and sing together.

Editor's note:  I too was at the concert and  worte up a piece before Jane sent me her  delightful article: So, I thought I would add a few things that I had jotted downl 

The Afro-Semetic Experience defies categorization, explore the rich intersections of two distinct cultures, while penetrating the soul, and lifting spirits.

There was noticeable chemistry between the co-founders of the group, Byrd, and Chevan who initially began performing as a duo. As Chevan, who spoke of his sense of oneness with Byrd, who is th eyoungest in a family of 16  said, “He’s my brother from another mother.”

 

I  really liked the group's catchy song, which is the title to their new CD,” “I’m on the Road to Heal My Splintered Soul.” The song, and others, at times felt like religious chants, and one can come away from the concert knowing the tune by heart.  I also beautiful instrumental from a living Sephardic Jewish composer.

 

The group’s interpretations of Jewish liturgical and cantorial music based on prayers from the High Holidays, including the Slichot prayer, were particularly uplifting and popular the sold out audience at the Berney Theatre.

Chevan spoke about the fact that in the times of the Temple the Jewish people brought animals to sacrifice or their finest fruits and crops but now merely rely on prayer alone. “Who is to say that prayer is as tangible a thing as bringing a gift and a sacrifice?”, chevan asked

 

The group then began playing their sublime instrumental [and my favourite of the evening] that can be found on their Days of Awe CD “May my offering be Acceptable to You?"

A follow-up CD entitled Further definition of the Days of Awe contains pieces of music, such as the Yom Kippur Prayer “Shma Koleinu” that combine the voices of religious cantors with jazz musicians. The prayers are stretched into invocations by turning each part of a word into multi-syllable entreaty to the heavens.

 

As Chevan noted, “The budget didn’t allow for us to bring in the Cantors,” for the Tarbut festival.

Alvin Carter Senior, spoke of how people of different faiths and cultures have more in common than not. Chevan spoke about how he loved Hann

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.