Music out of Africa … in Teaneck

Music out of Africa … in Teaneck

Mike Cohen, above, plays the flute for villagers in Putti.

Echad mi yodeah?

Who knows one?

The Hebrew words from the first track on the album Mike Cohen created in 2010 are from the familiar Passover song. The accents and the melody are not. They are African; the singers are the 15 member children’s chorus of the Jewish community of Putti in Uganda, along with the community’s rabbi.

“When I Wake Up: Music From Putti” brought together the songs Cohen recorded on a visit to Uganda with instrumentation he mixed in back in America.

A second record is being polished for release early next year.

Before that, on Saturday night, Dec. 15, Cohen will raise money for the community with a musical benefit at Smokey Joe’s in Teaneck.

The Jews of Putti are a subgroup within Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community. The Abayudaya traces its origins to a military chieftain who broke away from the Christianity spread by British missionaries nearly a century ago and set up a group that adopted the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. In recent years, the 1,200-member Abayudaya community has received support from American Jewry, which enabled their rabbi to study and be ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a Conservative institution that is part of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. The Abayudaya Jews then formally converted to Judaism, under Conservative auspices, to be accepted by world Jewry.

But the 250 to 300 Jews of the village of Putti broke away from the main Abayudaya community – they wanted to be more orthodox than that, and are seeking an additional Orthodox conversion.

Now the groups has students studying in Israel at the yeshiva of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and the Orthodox rabbi is planning a visit to Putti early next year for their second conversion.

Cohen first became aware of the Jews of Putti when he heard a field recording of their music (“No one’s ever going to accuse Smithsonian Folkways of not practicing niche marketing with Abayudaya: Music From The Jewish People Of Uganda” wrote an reviewer) but his involvement as a collaborator and advocate began in 2008 when he went to a screening of a South African documentary about the Abayudaya, “Pearls of Africa.” That led him to an online group about the community, and he soon found himself talking online with Putti’s rabbi.

“They have no running water, no electricity, but a town nearby has Internet access,” Cohen said.

Cohen is a professional musician, a jazz saxophone player who “plays a lot of flute and clarinet.” His klezmer group, Kleztraphobix, released an album in 2004; a jazz album is in the pipeline.

Given his musical leanings, it is perhaps not a surprise that he quickly ended up in Uganda, recording the community’s children choir singing Jewish songs.

The resulting recording, “When I Wake Up,” raised $10,000 for the community, “an enormous amount for them.”

Last year, he had an opportunity to return – this time with a recording engineer.

This second CD “is going to post-production in the next week. I hope it will be out in the next month or two. The music is phenomenal.

“It’s their music, their singing, new melodies for a lot of old songs. It’s their music on a Saturday morning. I just wanted to capture them doing what they do.

“It’s very much traditional east African folk music, but with Hebrew lyrics. There’s something about it that’s very unique, but very much steeped in the music they all grew up listening to in that area of the world.

“It’s really a beautiful hybrid. It’s inherently east African; it’s also inherently Jewish.”

In his performances in Teaneck, Cohen will take that music and put it “into a slightly different setting. With my quintet, I’ll be trying to re-examine those melodies, to use those melodies as a vehicle to play over.”

He’ll also be playing some of the Putti recordings, old and new.

The money he hopes to raise from the cover fee, as well as by selling recordings, handcrafted kippot, and a calendar of art from the village’s children, will go to “getting kids into school, and sending money for health care” through the Putti Village Assistance Organization .

The organization is also helping the Jews of Putti build a new synagogue. “The old one had no windows or doors; it had a thatched roof with holes in it. They didn’t have a Torah; they had a copy of one. A year and a half ago a doctor down in Houston raised the money to bring a real Torah to them. Now we’re raising money for a mikvah.”

The mikvah will enable Riskin and the two students he’s bringing back with him to convert the community for a second time.

“It’s pretty exciting for them,” says Cohen.

Meanwhile, “we’ve just got to keep raising funds. We’re still trying to keep kids in school. It’s a very difficult thing to come up with the money all these kids need.”

Save the date

Mike Cohen will appear at Smokey Joe’s, 494 Cedar Lane, on Saturday night, Dec. 15. First seating: Doors open at 7:30. Music begins at 8:15. Second seating begins at 9:30. $10 cover charge benefits the village of Putti

Listen and learn

You can listen to or buy “When I Wake Up: Music from Putti” at,, or on iTunes. More information on Putti is at

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