Afro-Semitic Experience drummer Alvin Carter Jr., left, and percussionist Baba Coleman play an African prayer beat to open a celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day at First United Methodist Church in Evanston on Sunday. Kelvin Ma/The Daily Northwestern
By Yuxing Zheng
Warren Byrd said he doesn’t think a celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has to involve passively listening to speeches.
“It’s OK to be funky in church!” Byrd yelled to a crowd of 200 gathered at First United Methodist Church on Sunday to celebrate King’s legacy through music.
Byrd is a pianist with The Afro-Semitic Experience, a Connecticut-based band that describes itself as a combination of Jewish melodies, gospel music and spirituals that combine to create an eclectic jazz style.
Those in attendance at the church, 1630 Hinman Ave., sang along and clapped to the innovative sound of the band, led by Byrd and bassist Dave Chevan.
“It’s like a weave, a cloth of many different experiences which we can explore and learn,” Byrd said about the band’s music. “We’re able to discard our differences and any prejudices.”
It was that combination of two different cultures and sounds that the Kfar Jewish Arts Center of Chicago had in mind when it drew the band to the area as part of its Tzitzit concert series.
The center also helped facilitate the Evanston event and performances in Lakeview, Ill., on Saturday night and Highland Park, Ill., later Sunday evening.
Adam Davis, director of the Kfar Center, said he felt the band was a good fit for the center’s traditional concert in celebration of King.
“The music not only celebrates our Jewish culture but our bridges with other communities,” Davis said.
Pastor Sara Webb Phillips of First United Methodist Church also said she was glad to have the band at the church’s annual celebration.
“In the Experience, they bridge the values between the music and the people who attend,” Phillips said. “It’s very exciting.”
Evanston resident Rachel Fowler said the performance was “fantastic” because it combined African-American and Jewish music well.
“The music comes together,” she said. “I want to get the CD now.”
The band’s sound is created by as many as seven members, though the number varies depending on the performance.
Sunday’s event featured three members in addition to Byrd and Chevan: a tenor saxophone and clarinet player, a percussionist and a drummer.
Davis said the event was a great way to share the band’s music and commemorate the holiday.
“It was a really nice crowd … (with) people from different communities, a lot of faiths and backgrounds,” he said. “It was great to see people come together not only to celebrate (King’s) memory, but his living legacy as well.”