The Hebrew word asefa has two meanings: As a noun, it refers to a committee or gathering that aims to achieve a specific goal; as a verb, it means “to gather.” Asefa is also the name of a band dedicated to fusing the sounds of the Middle East and North Africa with Sephardic melodies.
Since its formation in 2001, Asefa, led by Dr. Samuel Torjman Thomas, has brought its uniquely forged musical tradition to stages all over the world. The band’s next stop is Boston from March 3-4. Brought to town by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, Torjman Thomas and Asefa will kick off the weekend with a Kabbalat Shabbat service and oneg at Temple Israel of Boston. The following evening, they will headline a concert called “Sephardic Sounds and Spices” at ONCE Ballroom; a Sephardic-inspired dinner will cap the festivities.
Torjman Thomas recently spoke to JewishBoston about his musical roots in Boston and the lifelong influences he has incorporated into Asefa’s music. With a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, Torjman Thomas said that through Asefa, he has explored “the cultural context and the meaning that music can have in human expression. I wanted to understand more in-depth what music-making could be.”
Music-making began early for Torjman Thomas, with family culture and California geography inspiring his musical choices. He grew up with a Moroccan mother and an American father in northern California, and played jazz, blues and classical music as a woodwind player, specifically with the saxophone, clarinet and flute. His proximity to San Francisco exposed him to the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. “But the most influential music,” said Torjman Thomas, “the one that planted a seed that would come to be cultivated, was the Moroccan music I heard growing up in my house.”
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Torjman Thomas’s formal musical education began with a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. He intended to major in woodwind performance and jazz composition, but soon after his arrival he was exposed to klezmer at the nearby New England Conservatory. It was a pivotal moment for Torjman Thomas, who was also exploring other non-western styles of music from India and sub-Saharan Africa. “I had a strong affinity to that music because of their intense improvisation and rhythmic compositions, and yet the Moroccan music from my childhood was also echoing to me,” he said. “I thought, ‘How can I connect more with that music too?’”
Torjman Thomas avidly pursued that connection throughout his time in Boston. He also played a frame drum from Morocco for the first time, and incorporated that sound into his compositional work. “I started to compose things in Boston beyond the ‘jazz’ box and more into a ‘world fusion’ kind of box,” he said. By the time he moved to New York in 2001, he was playing other ancient instruments, such as the bambir (a small, cello-like instrument) and the ney (a bamboo shepherd’s flute that, according to Jewish lore, King David played).
Five weeks after his move to New York, 9/11 happened. That previous spring, Torjman Thomas had been to Israel amid the Second Intifada. After witnessing both violent events up close, he said he needed to “insert music into the conversation, particularly my music. I’m a diverse, multicultural person and not all of the people I knew then had an understanding of the Sephardi Mizrachi community or the North African Jewish communities. For my first Asefa album, called ‘Asefa,’ I marshaled all of my musical influences, which included klezmer tunes, Ladino songs and some Middle Eastern-style compositions that were original. I also rearranged North African tunes with a mix of instruments including the oud, the ney, drums, brass and saxophone. That eclectic collection directly led to naming the band ‘Asefa.’”
The second album, “Resonance,” features more of Torjman Thomas’s original compositions, which create new musical settings for piyyutim, or ancient liturgical poems. “In ‘Resonance,’ I give specific voice to the North African piyyutim,” he said. “I also rely on a repertoire of North African and Sephardic music that no one performs anymore. For example, for ‘Lecha Dodi,’ I wrote a melody with a North African approach.”
When Torjman Thomas leads Kabbalat Shabbat services in Boston this weekend, he hopes the music will leave a mark on people’s lives. “My work as a scholar,” he explained, “has led me to anthropology, history and Jewish studies. I’m a professor of both music and Sephardic studies; both those avocations come together in my persona. On Friday night, I’ll be giving a talk that will touch on music, but will also focus on the Sephardic experience historically and culturally.”
As for future prospects, Torjman Thomas intends to be an ambassador for the various musical traditions that he champions. “Great art,” he said, “is about opening people up. It’s about gathering people into this world-view that is more far-reaching and puts the Jewish experience front and center. That is what I am interested in accomplishing.”