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Sacred Notes: David Chevan on the Afro-Semitic Experience | November 2011

by Travis Carpenter
Photography by Chaim Strauchler

David Chevan, a music professor at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, has a passion for music. “I run the Latin Jazz band there,” he says, checking in with Angelica Music despite battling a head-heavy cold. “I run the blues band, the jazz standards group, an ensemble called the Creative Music Orchestra,” and he goes on. When not teaching, David is also the jazz bassist that co-founded the Afro-Semitic Experience, a jazz group that blends sacred music from the African-American and Jewish traditions as well as borrowing from several other styles.

The Afro-Semitic Experience

The Afro-Semitic Experience began in 1998, originally a piano-based duo with David and Warren Byrd. It started as a one-time performance, and David, having always wanted to mash up Jewish Sacred ideas with African-American sacred ideas, (who doesn’t?), brought it up one day. Warren took it as, "Oh, let's do something for a Martin Luther King service.” Phone calls started rolling in, and the Afro-Semitic experience was born.

Why mix Jewish and African ideas? “There's many different ways of looking at that question,” David muses. “Some things are philosophical, of course, but there's also musical things. African-American sacred music and some Jewish sacred music, especially Eastern European sacred music, sometimes use similar chord structures and melodic structures and sometimes they don't.” So, for David, it just made sense.

What is a typical performance for the group?

Well, it depends, because we find ourselves in different settings. Sometimes we're at church services and sometimes we're at synagogue services and sometimes we're doing concerts. We have to gear what we're doing to where we are and how we're sharing the music and also what's going on in the community we're playing for. It can also depend on the time of year, like if it's a Passover event, which celebrates the emergence of Jews from slavery into freedom.

If you were doing a Passover service, what would that performance entail?

We've done this interfaith Passover Seder a number of years down at Dickenson College. That's been interesting because we work with the students to form a Seder event, which is the meal that commemorates the liberation from Egypt. We do different readings, we play pieces in between the readings, students might recite poems, or they might sing a piece with us. Then we do some of our original pieces plus certain pieces from the Jewish and African-American liturgy that are related to the subject.

Do you do that kind of thing as often as you play a regular concert?

We never know what we're going to get the call for. We'll be in touch with an organization and they may just want a concert. The thing about our repertoire and the way that we play is that we really are some serious players. From a musical perspective, if you're, say, a jazz-head or you just like good grooves and whatnot, you might be there for that, while other people are there because they like the whole philosophical idea behind what we're doing- the idea of people who've emerged from slavery into freedom and forged their identities through finding common ground. And there is also an interfaith element because much of African-American liturgy is Christian. And not all that we do is Christian because Baba Coleman, our percussionist, is a Yoruba priest and he's introduced us to some West African ideas both musically and spiritually.


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