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The Jewish communities throughout Europe and Asia have dwindled and disappeared, and their musical traditions would have become extinct, too, were it not for the valiant effort of a handful of people, musicians and researchers.

The fruits of this cultural endeavor are evident at the annual conferences on Jewish music which have been held by Jerusalem's Renanot Institute for Jewish Music for almost half a century now. Today (10 A.M. to 5 P.M.) the 47th conference will be held at Yad Ben Zvi Institute, 12 Abarbanel Street, Jerusalem, featuring presentations on a variety of aspects of Jewish music and its documentation by renowned researchers, including Gila Flamm, Israel Adler, Eliyahu Schleifer and Yefet Tsedaka, as well as composers Eitan Avitzur and Andre Hajdu.

The most prominent personage at the first session will be Prof. Amnon Shiloah, a researcher and former head of the Musicology Department at Hebrew University and author of the entries on music and dance in the Encyclopedia Judaica, who has published hundreds of articles in musicology and ethno-musicology literature worldwide, as well as 1,000 entries in encyclopedias and research texts.

Shiloah will be lecturing on the musical tradition of the Jews of Damascus.

"I was born in Argentina to a Jewish family from Damascus," relates Shiloah, "and my parents returned to Syria when I was a child. All the cantors in Damascus were friends of my father, and our life seemed stable. When I was 13, I met an emissary from Israel and wanted to return with him. My parents did not consent, so I ran away from home."

At first Shiloah stayed in Kibbutz Afikim, but later moved to the Meir Shefaya Youth Aliya Village, where he studied independently until he began studying music and Arab language and literature at Hebrew University, after which he went to Paris, where he completed his doctorate and also specialized in medieval Jewish literature.

The fruits of Shiloah's research into medieval music were published last summer in the form of the first music disk to document the vocal traditions of the Damascus community - an ancient community formed even before the vocal traditions of King David. The community flourished and than waned during the Crusades, but recovered with the influx of Jews exiled from Spain and the rise of the kabbalists in 16th-century Safed.

The excerpts on this disk have waited a long time to be published, having been recorded by Shiloah 40 years ago, when the great cantors of Damascus first immigrated to Israel and sang to him from the depths of their souls. All of them have since passed away, but the music that was so important to them lives on: the melodies used to teach young children the alphabet and pronunciation of words, the special songs sung under the wedding canopy, on long winter nights of supplication, on Shabbat and festivals, and even songs in Arabic, attesting to the social and cultural relations with their surroundings.

Manuscripts in Arabic

Another of Shiloah's extensive research projects was also published recently: the second volume of his book, "The Theory of Music in Arabic Writings, 900-1900," which lay the foundations for the medieval history of music in the Middle East and Spain. The book contains over 500 entries covering over 1,000 pages, including hundreds of bibliographical references, a detailed index and notes - a monumental work that took 14 years to complete. Shiloah has catalogued and summarized the manuscripts of Arabic music research literature, even some that were translated from Greek.

Shiloah will be giving a lecture on the highlights of this book at another conference, the international "Bridge Between Judaism and Islam" conference, to be held next week at Bar-Ilan University (January 3-4).

Shiloah's book is part of the prestigious RISM (Repertoire International des Sources Musicales) series, a project encompassing 32 countries and more than 1,000 researchers committed to locating, studying and cataloging all the musical sources in the world - what has been written down and where - and presenting these sources to the community of researchers and performers for their practical use.

Among the manuscripts are ancient treatises and the topics range - church hymns, Jewish music and articles about it (by Israel Adler), theories on ancient Greek music and a list of the libraries worldwide that house such treasures.

The scope of Shiloah's work makes it all the more remarkable: "The first volume was published in 1979 and included only research on libraries in Europe and the United States. At that time I could not yet go to the Arab countries or to Eastern Europe," says Shiloah. "After the borders were opened, I managed to work in the national libraries in Cairo and Al-Azhar University, in 12 libraries in Turkey (since there is no national library there), including the one in the Topkapi palace, which houses one of the most beautiful collections of manuscripts I have ever seen; and in Tunisia, Morocco and Uzbekistan."

Budapest and St. Petersburg were also on Shiloah's itinerary in his quest for manuscripts in literary Arabic over 1,000 years old.

"More than just the language poses a difficulty," explains Shiloah. "Cataloguers were not always skilled, and it was enough for them to see the word `music' in a manuscript for them to catalog it under that heading. Music, however, is found in every global context: history, geography, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy. Music molds the intellect, and medical texts have also employed it. You can read about how doctors should use music in treating a patient, and when he should call in a musical expert to assist him."

The relationship between the Jews in Arab countries and the surrounding society is reflected in the use of the Maqam, or scale system - the sets of the various tones in Arabic and their extra-musical contexts, such as ethical or emotional aspects, even in the cantillation of the Torah.

"The Ten Commandments used to be sung, each in a different scale," says Shiloah. "So, too, were the chapters of Psalms for Shabbat, with each psalm having its own set of tones. The scales were also used for music therapy, a different scale for every illness. Another subject that has always interested me is music as a key to understanding the world, the mutual relationship between music and life - and in the ancient world there was a deep connection between them."