David Chevan and Warren Byrd were blessed by good luck at a casino, but not because they were gambling.

Rather, the two jazz musicians were playing together at Foxwoods in Connecticut when they discovered some important common ground, after Byrd started playing “Soon and Very Soon” by Andrae Crouch.

“I had done some gospel tunes in Brooklyn, and I was able to jump in and play it,” Chevan said. “That was the inspiration to take it to a whole other level, in terms of interpreting sacred music.”

That moment led to the formation of a band, The Afro-Semitic Experience, which is celebrating its 22nd anniversary in January and will be at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead this Sunday. 

Chevan will also appear in a group that will open the 2 p.m. concert, Two Shekel Swing, which features Yoni Battat on violin and explores the connection between klezmer and the Hot Club jazz that was popular in Paris in the 1930s.

“This is the first outdoor concert of its kind at the JCCNS,” said Karen Robinson, who handles marketing at the center. “We are quite excited to bring a different kind of music to the area and offer a fun, community-building, family-friendly, cultural and musical experience on our fields.”

Through nine albums, The Afro-Semitic Experience has played “Jewish sacred music with a popular idiom,” as their website states.  

The link between African American and Jewish histories of persecution and exile is captured in the title of the band’s first recording, “Once We Were Slaves.” 

That phrase is a quotation from Avadim Hayinu, a song from Passover that begins, “Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, now we are free.”

It is also captured in the lyrics of “Go Down, Moses,” an African American spiritual that was later recorded by Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington, in which the biblical figure of Moses is asked to “Tell ole Pharaoh/ To let my people go.”

The song appears on The Afro-Semitic Experience’s most recent CD, “Souls on Fire,” which pays tribute to “artists that had come before us,” Chevan said. 

“We’re not worried about whether we write it or somebody else writes it, as long as it says things we feel are important for people to hear and think about,” he said. “And it’s got to have a good groove.”

“Souls on Fire” includes songs from Jewish religious services, such as “Avadim Hayinu” and “Fon Der Khupe,” along with songs by more recent performers, such as John Coltrane, who explored several religions and believed that playing jazz was itself a form of worship.

“Everything he did came out of a place that was inherently spiritual,” Chevan said.  

While The Afro-Semitic Experience is guided by sacred traditions, the last thing the group wants to do is tell people what they should believe.

“We don’t espouse a particular dogma,” Chevan said. “In fact, if anything, what we’re trying to do is get beyond dogmas, so people can see how so many people have this idea of community and coming together at their core.”

That message is expressed directly in a song called “Unity in the Community,” which they wrote two or three years ago, but so far only exists in live performances.

“We’re hoping in time we’ll have an album with a coherent theme of ‘Unity in the Community,’ not just in that song,” Chevan said. 

Two Shekel Swing grew out of a community-based project that he leads in New Haven, Connecticut, Nu Haven Kapelye, where people of any skill level can learn to play klezmer.

Klezmer is folk music that was originally played by Eastern European Jews, which had affinities with Hot Club jazz, especially as played by guitarist Django Reinhardt.

“If you get to know the history of music at that time, in the ’20s, when klezmer was having its last gasp in Europe — before the Nazis destroyed it — you hear all these connections,” Chevan said. “They become explicit and fun in Yoni’s arrangements. It’s a great mixing of that style of jazz and klezmer because klezmer already has that two-beat feel.”   

Along with Battat, the group will include Chevan’s son, Jesse, on drums, and Chevan on bass.

“I’ve had an opportunity to be the old geezer with young players,” Chevan said.


If you go

What: Concert on the Hill: A Celebration of Music and Community

When: Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, lower field, 4 Community Road, Marblehead

How much: $5 for adults, free for children. Snacks and beverages available for purchase.

More information: www.jccns.org or 781-631-8330  

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