Abayudaya: Music, Coffee, Peace, Judaism & Uganda


Travel has a longstanding history of inspiration. From inspiring a search for knowledge to a quest for adrenaline, travel can be a catalyst for anything. As such, one of the more altruistic concerns travel has been responsible for is international development, and many not-for-profits and NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, Free the Children and Amnesty International were initiated by first-world citizens traveling to less developed countries. While this type of travel can be quite inspiring, a man named Joab Jonadai (“JJ”) Keki needed to experience a completely different type of travel to find his inspiration for his international development and GRAMMY nominated project.


JJ’s Background

Growing up under Jewish faith in Mbale, Uganda, JJ Keki was accustomed to poverty, inequality and religious conflict. Despite facing these harsh realities, JJ was able to tend a coffee collective and direct the Kohavim Tikvah Choir. Throughout his life, he always loved his home in Uganda and used his passion to promote it as a niche adventure tourism destination for Jewish tourists, as the area holds a large proportion of emerging Jewish citizens. JJ has always been a well-liked and influential member of this community, but it wasn’t until JJ’s first trip to America when all of his efforts began to come together to form something bigger than he ever could have imagined.

JJ Keki

A Life-Changing Trip to New York City

What began as a normal sightseeing trip to New York City changed very suddenly and dramatically for JJ on September 11, 2001. As he was approaching the entrance to the twin towers for a tour, his arrival was quickly interrupted by a dramatic crash. Looking to the sky, he didn’t see the majestic towers, only billows of smoke and flame. Lively big-city chatter was replaced by frantic screams and in an instant, JJ found himself in a crowd of people, chaotically fleeing for their lives.

While JJ was lucky enough to escape the scene without any serious physical injuries, the events took a mental toll. JJ learned what he saw was the result of religious terrorism, and while events of this sort weren’t entirely uncommon in his home country, he had not witnessed anything on such a dramatic scale as he had on the September day in New York City. Realizing that both events like 9/11 and others in Uganda could be prevented through religious peace, JJ decided to make it his duty to take action on this issue the best way he knew how: By leveraging both his position as a musician and as a businessman to create an interreligious Fair Trade coffee cooperative.

Planting the Seeds of Action in Uganda

Upon returning to Uganda, JJ approached members of local Muslim, Christian and Jewish parishes to come live and work together in the cooperative, along with financers from Thanksgiving Coffee Company he knew through contacts at Kulanu.

Although the different religious groups tended to keep to themselves, JJ’s charisma and enthusiasm proved to be contagious, and members from all three parishes agreed to put their differences aside and come together. With the support of the community, Thanksgiving Coffee also proved eager to join JJ’s bandwagon and with that, Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”) coffee was born.

jj keki

Nurturing the Peace Crop

With JJ’s diverse background, he was able to grow the cooperative into more than just a coffee cooperative and incorporate his passions for music and tourism along side the project. As songs have long been capable of transcending boundaries and bridging gaps, JJ used this to help bring all of the members of his cooperative even closer together by singing about coffee production and religious harmony. Once word of the musical coop began to circulate, Manudosi Sinina, a young, female Muslim coop board member,noticed that while travelers in Uganda often expressed little desire to visit coffee plantations, many were interested in JJ’s Peace Kawomera (as the cooperative is commonly known) because of the workers’ abilities to sing and dance in addition to collecting coffee.

Abayudaya Album Cover

Reaping the Rewards

By 2005, JJ’s musical success had not only brought religious harmony and international support; it also brought him back to America for a GRAMMY nomination for Best Traditional World Album for his rich compilation in Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda. The album is an African blend of Hebrew prayers, lullabies, political pieces and celebratory hymns.

We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace. It is not talking, but it teaches us. There are two beans in each coffee, which means it is friendly. It doesn’t want to live alone, it wants peace

Delicious Peace CD and Coffee

Following the success of his first album, JJ has recently worked with more of his fellow coffee farmers, as well as Smithsonian Folkways to release a follow-up mix entitled Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda. This blend features more traditional African pieces, stirring up tales of the benefits of coffee and interfaith cooperation.

While coffee production has served as an important musical inspiration for JJ and Peace Kawomera, the Fair Trade beans are also a success in their own right. Thanks to the livable wages through the Fair Trade nature of the production, growing coffee on the cooperative has secured sustainable employment for over 1,00 farmers. The coffee, described as “full bodied and lively, with hints of pecan and notes of nutmeg, and a lingering sensation of malty antiquity” has proven to be an international success. For the workers at Peace Kawomera, this has been the difference between not being able to afford access to food and water and being able to receive treatment for diseases like Malaria.

Altogether, JJ believes his success can be attributed to the fact that he was able to take the complex issue of religious peace and break it down into understandable terms. When asked about his efforts, he said, “we should copy the example of coffee to bring peace. It is not talking, but it teaches us. There are two beans in each coffee, which means it is friendly. It doesn’t want to live alone, it wants peace”. JJ has shown the world that something like this doesn’t have to be complex; all it needs is music, a few beans and one man’s passion.

Contributed by Judi Zienchuk.

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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