An article by Rabbi Juan Mejía for My Jewish Learning.
Judaism and Calypso? An unexpected combination? For Oscar Sarmiento, Duvan Vargas and Ruben de la Hoz, living on the shores of the Caribbean, nothing could be more obvious. And once you’ve had a listen to their version of Adon Olam (See video here) you will likely agree.
Judaism is one of the world’s most musical cultures. Our prayers are not just recited but sung. Our Scriptures have a detailed musical system in which they should be chanted. In our long and broad wanderings we have picked up unfamiliar instruments, rhythms and tunes and made them fully our own. With time, what was once new and innovative, forms into a cannon, fully formed and unchangeable.
What then is a new Jewish community to do? Throughout the world there are small groups that have come together drawn by the rituals, spirit and meaning of Judaism and joining the Jewish people. Without historic cultural roots, however, they face a challenge when it comes to music. They can of course borrow the melodies of Jews in other lands, but those tunes might not resonate.
Choices about music are just the beginning. In emerging communities most members are converts and Jews who are coming from mixed cultural backgrounds have a hard choice to make; how much of their old selves can they bring to their new religious and cultural system? Which elements from their past can be preserved, which have jettisoned, and which can be integrated to enrich their future Judaism? These decisions are confusing when we are talking about entire communities who are opting into Judaism and who are coming from completely different cultural backgrounds to what is perceived as “normative Judaism” – a norm that in and of itself rarely recognizes the full global nature of Jewish culture.
I am blessed to be the spiritual leader of such a community. Chavurat Nahariyah is an exciting group of young families in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla in my native Colombia. They have opted, out of deep love for the God of Israel, Torah and the Jewish people, to convert to Judaism as a whole. In their journey, as many converts often do, they tried to imitate what they perceive to be “authentic” Judaism: whether gastronomically, religiously, or liturgically. In the case of Nahariyah, given their Latino cultural surroundings, they favored Sephardic tunes mixed with some Ashkenazi staples that have become ubiquitous in North American and Israeli Judaism. Yet, something was missing. Imitation can give you the building blocks, but true ownership requires that you infuse your new identity with a sense of who you are. In Barranquilla, this meant, neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi, but Caribbean Jews.
This idea led three young musicians from Nahariyah, Oscar Sarmiento, Duvan Vargas and Ruben de la Hoz, to form the Project Madeira and start experimenting with Caribbean rhythms as a platform for serious Jewish liturgical expression for a new Adon Olam prayer. Vallenato, a local cousin of Calypso, seemed like an ideal candidate. This extremely popular rhythm from Northern Colombia is like Colombians themselves a hybrid of three cultures: African percussion (drums and boxes), native elements (the guacharaca or ridged stick) and the European accordion. By boldly owning both their Jewish and Caribbean identities, they are repeating the sacred cycle of Jewish growth: taking local elements of our Diaspora homes and using them to express the ancient values and liturgy of our people. Like that moment, not that long ago in the Jewish scheme of things, when a Jew grabbed a fiddle and a clarinet to klezmer their way into musical immortality, the talented musicians of Nahariyah are inheriting the sacred duty of becoming producers of Jewish culture and not just their consumers.