The Afro-Semitic Experience brings new musical to WaterFire Arts Center on July 23


In the early 1990s, composer John Zorn began to ask, “What is Jewish music? What is its future?” Those questions gave rise to the Radical Jewish Culture movement, whose goal is to explore what Jewish music can be.

By blending jazz and klezmer with other genres, Zorn inspired other musicians to do the same. One of those musicians is David Chevan,  a Connecticut-based bassist.

In the 1990s, Chevan shared the stage at Foxwoods Casino with African American pianist Warren Byrd. During that performance, Chevan joined Byrd in a jazz rendition of “Soon and Very Soon,” an African American church hymn.

Playing that song got Chevan thinking about how he could bring Jewish music into the mix, which led to a conversation with his cantor.

That talk led to an invitation for Chevan and Byrd to play at the synagogue’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event The set was so successful, Chevan says, that “by the end of the Oneg, we already had other gigs.”

And so, The Afro-Semitic Experience band was born. Since 1998, Chevan and Byrd have added to their band and expanded the boundaries of Radical Jewish Culture. As Chevan says, “What was supposed to be a one-time experience has turned into a lifelong experience.”

The band’s website, at, describes The Afro-Semitic Experience as “an intricate tapestry of spiritual, world-beat, funk, jazz, cantorial, gospel, salsa, swing … soul-driven music. Their concerts are celebrations where they play great music, tell stories, and offer a positive and meaningful message: Unity in the Community.”

Storytelling is at the heart of Chevan’s latest project, “Letters from the Affair,” which premieres on July 23 at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center. A multimedia musical, “Letters” takes place in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair; it explores the relationship between Jewish Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his artist peer Edgar Degas, and the collapse of their friendship due to Degas’ anti-Semitism.

Chevan based “Letters” on exhaustive research (in his own words: “I worked my tuchis off on it!”) of letters written between Pissarro and his son, and between Pissarro and Degas. Chevan explained that “all of the songs in the work are carefully taken from the letters … there is a bit of fiction, but really as little as possible.”

“Letters” will premiere on Tuesday, July 23, at 8:30 p.m. at The WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St., Providence.

The play will be performed by The Afro-Semitic Experience, along with two cantors chosen by Chevan to portray Pissarro and Degas: Cantor Malachi Kanfer, of Congregation B’nai Jacob in New Haven, Connecticut, will play Pissarro, and Cantor Martin Levson, of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts, will play Degas. 

Tickets are $15 and are available at or at the theater on the day of the show.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.


arts, music, Afro-Semitic Experience