Jewcy Interviews: The Afro-Semitic Experience

The Afro-Semitic Experience has been together for a bit over a decade. A group that is a mixture of Jews, Christians and African Priests melds its sound on this latest CD in a way that causes you to sit up and listen. Read More

By / September 21, 2011
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The Afro-Semitic Experience has been together for a bit over a decade. A group that is a mixture of Jews, Christians and African Priests melds its sound on this latest CD in a way that causes you to sit up and listen. It’s easy to hear the expected Jewish sounds of a High Holiday album. But as you continue to listen the infectious drum beats and jazz saxophones melding with the rich sound of the featured cantor’s voices makes you think, How did they do that? You can hear Latin sounds fused with Afro-Caribbean sounds fused with Jazz finished with the hearty bellowing timber of trained cantors. Listening to this kind of Jewish music always makes me wonder, why can’t all Jewish music sound this way? I got the chance to spend an hour talking to the founding member of the Afro-Semitic experience, David Chevan, about their sound and finding a place in a sea of Jewish Music.

How did this group of diverse musicians come together?

The band started by accident. About ten years ago a few of us arranged for time to play a gig and I got there late. The owner’s were fairly strict with time so when I came in the others were already playing. I turned on my bass and joined them-just blending our different sounds. For the first few years it was just the two of us,Warren and I. We were playing at a gig and someone in the audience asked if we could play at their son’s Bar Mitzvah with the stipulation that we find someone to play on drums. We got a drummer and played the Bar Mitzvah. There was a rabbi in attendance who heard us playing and asked if we’d play at their Shabbat services. As a band, we grew from there.

There is a nice mix between traditional cantorial sounds and this sort of Jazzy-Latin thing that happens on some tracks-is it easy to blend these seemingly different styles of music?

We’re trying to bring a lot of voices into this album. We play with between 4-7 members depending on who is available, which lends itself to a lot of different sounds. Not all of the members are Jewish. We have some gospel musicians in the band and some African musicians as well. The drum patterns that you hear are from Baba Coleman who is a Yoruban Priest. He brings that spiritual background to the music. His Afro-Caribbean sound and spiritually is what you are hearing in the rhythms. We have a member whose wife’s Lebanese-Christian background adds the Arabic sounds. Our keyboard player is active in his church which lends to some of black gospel sound you can hear. Everyone brings their background to the table based on where they are coming from.

When the band first started playing for Jewish communities, what was the initial reaction?

Some people love it and some people don’t. If they love it, they really love it-we’re tearing it up! Those drums?! It’s amazing. When you hear this music, you think I want to go to synagogue there. Some people aren’t into the drums and really don’t like it because they’re not sure what to expect and they definitely aren’t expecting this. When we recorded this album the response was amazing. People were dancing in their seats at all three shows. As people discover us, they tell their friends and they tell their friends and people show up. They know that they are going to have a genuine spiritual experience.

So how did you go from a couple of guys playing Jazz to recording this High Holiday album featuring cantors?

I am very involved in Jewish music, cantorial music specifically. In 2003 we recorded The Days of Awe and explored cantorial music for High Holy Days. That album was all instrumental jazz renditions of traditional High Holy Day music. The cantors on this album, Jack and Erik specifically, heard heard the 2003 album and were taken by the new ways of envisioning Jewish music. Working with them in their synagogues and for their communities has been a great experience. We get to bring a different type of music into the Jewish community while keeping traditional cantorial melodies intact.

This album, Further Definitions of the Days of Awe is a follow up to the first album. There was a great jazz musician named Benny Carter. I had the pleasure of knowing and seeing him live before he passed away. In the early 1960s when rock was the pop music was the rage Benny put out landmark jazz album called Further Definitions of Swing. The name of this album is my way of showing my respect for him and the way he carried himself.

Why is it important for you and the group to have this kind of Jewish music heard?

The music is important for me, but if it’s not important to you, I can respect that. People will understand and get it, but I can understand people who are ubber Frum who may not enjoy it. This album is for people who need their music to have that physical catharsis that speaks back to an older Judaism maybe there is an entry way here. I keep reading the book of Chronicles the book of Kings to see what Jewish music was like 4000 years ago. Obviously we have no sound recording, but the way in which they praised God is recorded in Torah. You can read about the singing, the dancing, and the instruments that were used to praise God. When Jews stopped dancing at services…maybe that was too big a loss for Jews.

The inside cover of the album quotes the second book of Samuel that decrees “David danced before the Lord with all his might”-why do you think it’s so hard for Jews to really dance and praise God in the way that say, a black Baptist community does?

In my view after the destruction of the Temples there was a time of mourning that gave way to a a power struggle in Diaspora communities. The rabbis needed a way to keep the people in line and to keep order. When you take away horns, drums, etc. and take away vocal music (after temple destruction) an attempt to get rid of music completely-the tradition of this kind of music is lost. There can and should be singing on the Sabbath, there should be joy and dancing. We’ve worked hard with cantors and traditional nusach to bring the dancing spirit in this album. At every service we’ve played at for the past few years we can get always some people dancing.

Does the Afro-Semitic experience only lead service during High Holy Days?

We’ve never done a High Holy Day service, usually just weekend services. We don’t just play for Jews we do Sunday morning services at churches as well. We’ve done Purim parties, Simchat Torah services-just about everything. When I think about an audience I don’t think about the faith, I think more about the open-mindedness. You’ll find both open-minded and close-minded people ever where you go-it’s just a question of how they react to us.  We’d love to bring this sound to a High Holy Day Service this year.

How have you grown spiritually by being in this band?

This band has helped me to understand what it means to be Jewish in ways that I might night have otherwise experienced. In the process of learning about being Jewish I’ve learned a lot of Christianity and Yoruban culture. It’s amazing to see how many things we all have in common. There is so much cross over between the faiths and how the messages in one faith can resonate and mean the same in the other. There is always something in the message that is universal rather than being faith specific.

This album truly seems to have something for everyone-was this purposeful?

With this album we are really looking go speak to everyone. People who are looking for something new and old, something ancient as well as the future. It’s fun and easy to listen to. At the same time it’s spiritually moving.

How can people hear your music and buy this album?

Everything is on the website We generally don’t do gigs in night clubs and things like that. We’re available for synagogue services, High Holiday services and church services as well. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’re not stopping

How would you describe the perfect Jewish community?

We’re already living in the perfect Jewish community. Some of us get along, some of us don’t some of us are secular and only Jewish because of our values while some of us are religious Jews. It’s the perfect time to be Jewish because you can be Jewish the way that you want to be.

You can contact The Afro-Semitic experience at for more information about getting the Afro Semitic experience in your prayer space.