Sacred Music Festival Set to Give Jerusalem a Divine Buzz

Among the musicians will be Amadou and Mariam from Mali and legendary Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, on his first visit to Israel.

Jerusalem, with its biblical roots and crazy quilt of religions, might be an old-hand when it comes to the sacred, but the line-up for the second Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival this week (August 20-23) is likely to teach the holy city a thing or two.

The Tropos Byzantine Choir from Greece and its program of ritualistic Christian music is one thing, but Mickey Hart, legendary drummer of the Grateful Dead? And the GreedyAdam Band in an evening of psychedelic cantorial singing? Not to mention the blind Malian musicians Amadou and Mariam.

Clearly, we’re talking about a very different kind of sacred.

The organizers of the event were aware of the risks of declaring anything “sacred” in the holy city, so they started on a minor note, with a 24-hour music marathon last year. “The soundtrack of this city is the prayers of people, whether from a synagogue or church or mosque,” says Itay Mautner, artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture. “And across the world, how many millions of lips say the word ‘Jerusalem’ over the course of the day? So we were frightened to come up with this headline of ‘sacred music.’ “

They may have been frightened, but the first festival was a revelation.

“There was a moment at the end of that very special night … last year, in the early hours of the morning, when hundreds of us stood together on a rooftop overlooking the most beautiful landscape in the world,” Mautner wrote on the festival website. “After listening to Jewish choruses, Sufi ceremonies and Christian prayers, and after experiencing the sounds of Africa, Central Asia, and the daily sounds of Jerusalem, we watched with pure joy as the first signs of life rose above the terraced and grave-cluttered hills of the Mount of Olives. This was the moment that we understood, or more to the point, felt, that something had happened - we were not just talking about another, albeit pleasurable, music festival, but a far more meaningful, profound experience.”

This year, Mautner and his partners, music event producers Gil Karniel and Omri Sharir, have planned a festival lasting four full days, from August 20-23, with a colorful hybrid of international headline artists bearing names unlike any that Jerusalem has had to deal with in the past. They include: “Into the Roots of Rastafari: Nyabinghi Drumming Ceremony and Black Roots,” “Psychomysticism! The GreedyAdam Band in an evening of psychedelic cantorial singing,” “Salif Keita – the Golden Voice of Africa,” “Kirtan with Jai Uttal – An Evening of Ecstatic Chanting,” “Emahoy Tsegue: Sounds from Ethiopia Street” and Amadou and Mariam, the celebrated blind couple from Mali.

Some performances team local and international musicians, such as a musical arrangement by Israel’s Yair Dallal, a renowned violinist and oud player of Iraqi descent, playing with the Vox Clamantis Ensemble from Estonia – a group of singers and musicians which performs Gregorian chants, as well as more contemporary chorales.

But perhaps the biggest name, especially for Americans and fans of Americana, is the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart. At 69, the American-Jewish musician is coming to Israel for the first time in his life with the eponymous Mickey Hart Band. Diehard Deadheads are expected to fill the aisles with bliss. But where does the music of a classic American rock band fit in with a festival whose music is meant to be sacred, if not exactly religious?

“The Grateful Dead were all about transformation – they were about going through a deep transformational experience as a part of listening to the music,” Mautner explains. “Besides playing in the Dead, Mickey Hart wrote four different books about drumming, including drumming as a healing process. A healing process is sacred. He traveled all over the world to learn about how drumming is used, and now he brings in all kinds of rituals from African tribes.” Putting percussion into the program alongside an ensemble of chants sung in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, for example, widens the definition of who gets to call his or her music practice “sacred,” Mautner says.

“We’re about broadening the conversation and making it bigger. Everyone who wants to be included can be.”

The festival venues range from the Tower of David Museum in the Old City to Zedekiyah’s Cave in East Jerusalem and the YMCA in West Jerusalem. From midnight to sunrise on Thursday night/Friday morning, the Tower of David will be the scene of a biblical trance hafla (party) hosted by Sada, a group of Jewish and Muslim performers who normally play in a bigger group called Diwansaz. These seven musicians, who perform ancient music from Central Asia, Turkey, Persia, and the Holy Land, will be joined by special guest - Ashraf Abu Leila, a world renowned Yarol player.

The group is returning after an inspiring sunrise concert last year. Yochai Barak, the group’s manager and member who plays the saz, a Turkish string instrument, says they’ve decided to focus on joy – and therefore are doing an arrangement of Jewish and Muslim wedding music.

“There are many ways to look at the conflict, and some do it with sadness. But we decided to go to the root of happiness, which is wedding music, so that’s what we focus on now – only happy melodies,” says Yochai. “It’s trance, but trance with ancient instruments and without fancy electronic devices.”

Yochai says that unlike events bringing together musicians from far-flung places, they are all musicians who live near each other in the Galilee. Barak lives in the village of Yodfat, and the classical Arabic singer he works with, Saeed Tarbiah, lives next door in the town of Sakhnin.

“What we do is not a show – it’s our lives. Most of us in the group live in a very old Jewish village where people know Arabic, love Arabic, like to hear the muezzin from Sakhnin next door. We go to their weddings and they come to ours. These are the kind of things that you will never hear about in the media,” he says. They perform alongside dancers of debka –a traditional Arab dance – who are from the nearby Beduin village of Kabiya.

“Everyone is from a different part of the Galilee. For us it’s important to show that we’re not gathering from different places, we’re just being what we are. We don’t ask questions or go into politics, we just gather and play.”

Shakar Shani
AP