Jewish Appalachians? You don't really hear those two words in the same sentence. The same goes for "Jewish Ugandans."
Well, we've found groups of both. They may not have much in common. They may not even agree on What it means to be Jewish.
But both groups make music. Beautiful music.
And we want to bring them together to make an album. We want to take a small group of Jewish Appalachians to Uganda, get them in the studio, and see what happens.
In the end, we plan to have one of the most unique albums ever made. And a film that documents its making.
After the release of the film and album, our goal is to bring the Ugandan musicians to Appalachia to perform on the public radio program, Mountain Stage. Bringing the project full circle.
Jon Matthews Director
- Directed the feature documentary, "Surviving Cliffside," which premiered at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival;
- 2014 Film Independent Documentary Lab Fellow;
- Graduate of NYU's Graduate Film Program, where he was a Dean's Fellow, receiving a full tuition scholarship;
- Worked as Spike Lee's assistant at NYU;
- Co-directed the feature "Black Dog, Red Dog," starring James Franco, Whoopi Goldberg, and Olivia Wilde.
- Co-producer and camera operator on 2015 Academy Award winning documentary, Citizenfour.
- Recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan grant for her feature film project.
- Graduate of NYU's MFA Film Program.
Two years ago, Ernest Adzentoivich and Mike Cohen traveled to Uganda to record the music of the Jewish Ugandans in the village of Putti.
The result was a the acclaimed record, "I Love to Sing."
Eventually, Ernest and Mike approached filmmaker, Jon Matthews, about making a documentary about this unique subculture: the Jewish Ugandans.
Around that same time, Jon was visiting his home state of West Virginia, where he met Rabbi James Cohn of Temple Israel in Charleston, West Virginia.
This got Jon thinking about another unique subculture: the Jewish Appalachians. And sparked the idea of combining musicians from both groups, in order to make an album, and a film documenting this process.
Together, Rabbi James Cohn, Mike Cohn, Ernest Adzentoivich, and Jon Matthews form the team of producers that will bring this film to life.
The Abayudaya are small community in eastern Uganda that practice Judaism.
From Bible's left by Christian missionaries in the 1880s, the Abayudaya followed the 5 books of Moses (the Torah). And adopted their own form of Judaism.
Despite decades of persecution, including that from Idi Amin, the Abayudaya have survived and continue to practice their unique form of Orthodox Judaism.
Their music, as unique as their religion, combines traditional Ugandan melodies and rhythms with traditional Hebrew music and psalms.
When you think of Jewish Americans, what comes to mind? Many think of big city folks. New Yorkers with accents like Woody Allen.
But America's Jewish population isn't confined to its cities. While there are Jews in the high rises, they are also in the hills and hollows.
For our project, we go to West Virginia, the home state of our director, Jon Matthews, to cast the subjects for this film.
One of these subjects is Mike Pushkin, who grew up in the West Virginia synagogue and attended Jewish summer camps. Today, Mike has a pretty unique life. He plays in a band. Drives a cab. And was recently elected into the West Virginia House of Delegates.
When Mike isn't voting on legislation, he still drives a cab. And being Jewish, Mike was the only cab driver who agreed to work on Christmas.
Mike is quite the unique individual. A Jewish Appalachian cab driver politician musician. And we can't wait introduce his unique music and personality to the people of Putti, Uganda.
Another cast member is Dina Hornbaker. Dina grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a multi-instrumentalist, song writer, and vocalist. Her musical inspirations are focused on female artists like Nina Simone, Alison Krauss, and Janis Joplin.
Mike and Dina are only two of a group of Jewish Appalachian musicians that we are casting. As a whole, this cast will represent a diverse group that vary in backgrounds and beliefs.
Risks and challenges
One of the biggest challenges with any documentary is access. Sure you have a great story. But how do you access the individuals necessary to tell that story?
In our case, we have the benefit of having two producers, Ernest Adzentoivich and Mike Cohen, who have already spent time in Ugandan, establishing relationships, and making an album with the people of Putti.
And what about funding? Sure, Kickstarter is great. But is it going to raise enough budget for you to get to Uganda and complete your film?
The answer is "no." Kickstarter will give us a substantial start. And we won't be able to do it without you! But we are also relying on the support of private donors and investors who will help make this film possible.
What if your album fails? What if you get over there and the music stinks?
Well, that is a possibility. Just because we have two groups of talented musicians, doesn't necessarily mean they will make beautiful music together.
But that's what's going to make this a great film! The drama of whether it will happen or not. The conflicting musical tastes and opinions. Any band has disputes and artistic differences. Imagine a band of musicians with disparate tastes from different sides of the globe. That's what we have with our film! And this challenge these differences present is what's gonna make our film interesting!
The bottom line is that our main goal is not to create a successful album. Sure, that would be great. We'd love to give that gift to the world of music. But, our real goal is exploring identity. And the more specific we get with that question, the more universal the implications will be. Exploring the question of what it means to be Jewish will get at the deeper human question of "what makes us who we are" and why that is so important.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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