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New Haven's Afro-Semitic Experience encourages 'Unity in the Community' with new album

The Afro-Semitic Experience
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The Afro-Semitic Experience

The Afro-Semitic Experience is a New Haven based jazz collective that infuses spirituality and unity into their songs and performances. The group is releasing its latest album Jan. 19.

Pianist Warren Byrd is a Christian; bass player David Chevan is Jewish. Back in the late '90s, the musicians would play together occasionally. They became friends, and their post-gig discussions tended to gravitate toward spirituality and music.

Those discussions led to jam sessions, where they blended songs and lyrics from the Black church, and the Jewish faith, with jazz.

“There were a lot of tunes that when me and David started working together, I had never heard, because why? They came from Jewish liturgy,” Byrd said. “ And I loved the feeling that they gave me when I played them, and I heard them. So that was incorporated into the larger group.”

As they expanded their repertoire, and more musicians were added to the group, so did their efforts at using the band’s music as a form of social commentary.

“I mean, we explore the whole concept of enslavement, of racial justice, of social justice in different ways in different pieces,” Chevan said. “So it's all mixed in. We break all of the rules, they’ll say ‘Oh, don't be political in your music.’ But we're embracing some of that quite openly and quite intentionally.”

The band's upcoming album is no different. “Our Feet Began to Pray” is a phrase largely attributed to late civil rights leader John Lewis when describing the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

As peaceful marchers were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge leaving Selma they were met with billy clubs and whips by Alabama State Police and local authorities. Lewis suffered a skull fracture in the attack.

The phrase is also attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Lewis in Selma.

“He was a pretty religious Jew,” Chevan said. “He was asked by other Jews later, ‘what were you doing? You are on the bridge, you were protesting on the Sabbath.’ And he said, "That day, my feet were doing the praying.”

David Chevan wrote the title track of the album, which was inspired by a 2020 George Floyd protest in New Haven.

“At a certain moment, I realized that so much of what was going on in that protest was paralleling things I knew about the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Chevan said. “Right down to that it was this hot, sweaty day, it was a Sabbath day. And you are crossing a bridge and making a choice. At that protest the New Haven police actually corralled the entire protest, and forced them onto Route 95, which took us all over several bridges. And that's when I made all the connections, which show up lyrically in the song.”

The Afro-Semitic Experience is just one of several projects Warren Byrd and David Chevan are involved with. Byrd said when he sits down at the piano with this ensemble it’s like no time has passed.

“Because you come back and you basically take up where you left off. It's just really great to come back to that space that we've created together, and do some creating, and enjoy each other in this particular journey.”

“Our Feet Began to Pray” by The Afro-Semitic Experience drops Friday, Jan. 19, on all music platforms.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.