Singing for Peace—and Coffee—in Uganda

In recordings made by Jeffrey Summit, villagers tell the stories of their lives and build religious tolerance
a group of villagers in Uganda making music and signing
J.J. Keki, left, and the Peace Kawomera Jazz Band. Photo: © Richard Sobol
September 27, 2013

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Jeffrey Summit, G88, G95, brews a pot of coffee each morning, savoring the aroma of the dark roast, a fair trade coffee from Uganda. It has a slightly smoky taste, with a touch of brown-sugar sweetness. It is the only coffee that Summit, Tufts Jewish chaplain and executive director at Tufts Hillel for 34 years, buys. The beans unite three of his favorite interests: coffee, music and world peace.

The coffee is grown by more than 1,000 Christians, Muslims and Jews who live in a rural region of southeastern Uganda and are members of a fair trade cooperative called Peace Kawomera—kawomera means “delicious” in Luganda. These farmers also make music together, music that Summit found so inspirational that he had to record it and share it with the world.

The result is his latest CD, Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda, released earlier this year by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The album contains 16 of the hundreds of songs he recorded at the coffee cooperative over the past six years—a follow-up to his Grammy-nominated 2005 album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda. Photojournalist Richard Sobol, A76, worked together with Summit on this project.

“People in rural Uganda don’t rely on newspapers, TV or radio to share important information—they use songs,” says Summit, who has a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Tufts and is a research professor in the Department of Music and in Judaic studies. The lyrics can be educational, things like, it’s important to send your child to school or, during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, use a condom. Members of the coffee co-op also sing about how to grow the best coffee, and they write lyrics about economic justice and interfaith harmony, including this song on the new CD:

I am telling all religious leaders that God is the one who created us all.

Our grandparents are Adam and Eve.

We have the same ancestors.

Let us not segregate each other:

It destroys the world.

 

Watch a video about the Delicious Peace coffee cooperative members.

Ground Zero

The story of how the pungent brew ended up in Summit’s coffee mug starts in 2000, when he studied and wrote about the music of a group of Ugandan Jews known as the Abayudaya. While doing research in East Africa, he made warm and lasting connections with the people he met, including J.J. Keki, a performer and composer. Keki visited America for the first time in 2001, staying at Summit’s home in Newton, Mass. On the night of Sept. 10, he traveled to New York City.

The next morning Keki started walking toward the World Trade Center, where he had been told he’d see a panoramic view of Manhattan. He ended up an eyewitness to the 9/11 terror attacks on the twin towers and joined the thousands who fled the scene.

When Keki learned the culprits were religious fanatics, he vowed he would use religion in another way, as a means of working for peace. In 2003 he founded the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, asking his neighbors to overcome their disagreements and help each other prosper. Keki told his neighbors, “If you have a body, don’t use it for chaos; use it for peace. If you have music, use it for peace. What do we have? We have coffee. We’ll use coffee to teach peace to the world.”

Photo: © Richard Sobol

The cooperation has paid off: the Ugandan farmers are teaching each other how to cultivate high-quality coffee beans. Thanksgiving Coffee, a company in California committed to fair trade, buys and distributes their entire crop. This connection to the fair trade movement guarantees that the farmers will receive a good price for their coffee, even when the market fluctuates. And they write music to teach about their cooperative.

The words to one song offer some advice about coffee growing:

Don’t harvest the unripe, green cherries:

That will kill our market.

Friends, clean everything used to store coffee.

So that the quality of our coffee can be improved.

Many assume the Ugandans are using music as work songs, Summit says, but that’s not the case. “It is music for the purpose of education,” he says. “In Uganda, when you have an important message to convey, music is the best way to do it. It’s very common for groups to sing their messages at community gatherings, after church or at agricultural or women’s festivals.” The music is composed by the performers, who often use melodies based on songs sung at school or in church.

Jeff Summit joins a celebration. Photo: © Richard Sobol

Summit was fascinated by the music, but he also wanted to find out whether the co-op really did help create harmony among the religious communities or whether it was just a clever way to market coffee. “What I found is that it has had a profound impact on the relationships between people,” he says.

People in the co-op get along well, Summit says, relying on fair trade principles that provide loans and ensure that women are part of the leadership team and that farmers use sound ecological practices to grow high-quality coffee beans.

Farming and peace make good business partners, Summit says, noting that the head of a local Muslim community once told him, “You know, we are all children of the same God. We see little sense in fighting. We have found it is more to our benefit to cooperate together.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu 

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