MEDFORD — “I’m a passionate coffee drinker,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, taking a seat in his bright, spacious office in the Granoff Family Hillel Center at Tufts University, where he is surrounded by books and an eclectic assortment of musical instruments. He is just back from teaching a class, and is chatting with students.
The university’s Jewish chaplain, who is also an ethnomusicologist and research professor of music and Judaic studies, worked with an interfaith coffee co-op in Uganda to produce an album about their music. “This is everything I love in the world: coffee, music, and world peace,” he says.
He recorded “Delicious Peace,” featuring songs about coffee production, fair trade, religious unity, and economic justice, with Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace), a co-op in Namayonyi, outside Mbale in eastern Uganda. His latest CD for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, “Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda,” has just been nominated for a best album Independent Music Award; one track, “Get Up and Grow Coffee!,” was nominated for best song.
Summit first visited Uganda in 2000 when his friend, photojournalist Richard Sobol, lured him to Mbale to study the music of the Abayudaya, a group of Ugandan Jews who first converted to the religion in the 1920s. A CD that Summit recorded with them in 2003, “Abayudaya: Music From the Jewish People of Uganda,” was nominated for a Grammy.
In early September 2001, J.J. Keki, the Abayudaya’s lead musician, was in the United States for an East Coast lecture tour. It was his first time traveling outside Uganda. After spending the night with Summit and his wife in Newton, he took a train to New York. On the morning of Sept. 11 Keki was outside the World Trade Center, about to meet a friend who was going to take him to the top, when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower.
In a video on the Smithsonian Folkways website, Keki explains how his 9/11 experience inspired him to act. When he returned home, he decided, “We should begin something. We have coffee. Maybe we [should] make a co-op of Muslims, Christians, and my religion. I’m Jewish. And then we can teach the world how to work together.”
Ironically, many people in Uganda prefer drinking tea. But the darker, more highly caffeinated beverage with which so much of the rest of the world is obsessed plays a significant role in the country’s economy. In the hills near Mt. Elgon, where the Peace Kawomera farmers live, the land is hospitable to Arabica beans.
Keki walked door-to-door inviting neighbors to join an interfaith fair-trade coffee co-op that would model peaceful relations between the different groups. With the help of Kulanu, a nonprofit organization that works with Jewish communities around the world, Keki’s co-op found a US distributor, Thanksgiving Coffee Co., based in northern California.
As they worked, the farmers began to write songs about what they were doing. Summit explains that in Uganda, and much of Africa, music is used to educate. Often it is the only way to convey messages.
Summit returned for three more extended research trips. “Literally, I got hip-deep in coffee production,” he says. “I spent weeks tramping around in the coffee fields during coffee harvest.” Summit recalls being struck by how labor-intensive the production process is, and how little he knew about it. He spent hours in the fields, examining coffee cherries to determine whether they were ripe enough to pick. He also recorded the farmers’ music, and later produced and wrote the liner notes for the CD.
Now Summit wants people here who drink coffee to understand what is behind it. “There’s an intense personal connection between the human beings who produce this product we love and value,” he says. “Music is a powerful way to get into the minds of the people making the food.”
Thanksgiving Coffee currently buys all that Peace Kawomera grows and distributes it widely on the West Coast. Locally, Tufts serves the coffee in its library cafe. It is also sold at area synagogues, churches, and mosques committed to interfaith work.
Summit admits to having wondered, at times, “Is this really a model of interfaith cooperation or a clever way to sell Fair Trade coffee?” But he no longer has any doubts. His faith in the mission was solidified by such small things as Christian and Muslim farmers casually eating lunch together, something that would not usually take place in Uganda. The co-op has also brought some stability to the farmers’ region.
“And,” Summit says with a smile, “the coffee is great.”
Listen to a few songs from the album “Delicious Peace.”
Video: The inspiration for the album “Delicious Peace.”
DELICIOUS PEACE COFFEE www.thanksgivingcoffee.com
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.