Holy sounds in the Holy City

Now expanded to four days, the second annual Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival has a wide-ranging roster.

Gil Ron Shama (photo credit: Zohar Ron)
Gil Ron Shama
(photo credit: Zohar Ron)
The second annual Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival is almost upon us (August 20-23), and judging by the line-up, it is going from strength to strength. Last year’s inaugural event was a 24-hour slot of concerts, tours and talks in and around the Old City. This year’s festival stretches over a full four days, including an overnighter, and the program is jam-packed with goodies that hail from numerous areas of musical intent, cultural background and parts of the world.
The acts were selected by artistic directors Gil Karniel, Omri Sharir and Gil Ron Shama, under the aegis of the Jerusalem Season of Culture and its director Itai Moutner. Ron Shama is a natural choice for the job. A decade and a half ago, he was a founding member of world-music band Sheva, which was at the forefront of the New Age-inclined movement that swept the country. The band was based in the Galilee and was a staple of the major cultural and musical events of the time, such as the popular Shantipi and Beresheet festivals. Sheva, which included Mosh Ben-Ari, who has become a bona-fide rock star, was about far more than the music. There was an infectious spiritual vibe to the whole venture as there is with the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival.
Ron Shama appears to have moved on with the scene in the intervening years.
“You can sing and dance around bonfires, but you can elevate all that on an individual level and in terms of consciousness and make it all real and tangible,” he says. “It is here, and it is going to be everywhere.”
The music and the energy Ron Shama refers to will be all over and around the Old City for four days, and he and his fellow artistic selectors have clearly gone for broke in terms of the quality of the acts they have lined up and the variety of entertainment they offer.
One of the most talked-about local cultural events in recent times is the emergence of 90-year-old Ethiopian nun Emahoi Tzega from her cloistered life in the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem. It appears that the nonagenarian has been writing and playing music for almost seven decades around the world, and a book about her life and music has just been released. There will be two gala performances of some of her works, at the YMCA on August 20 and 23, featuring pianist Omri Mor and Ethiopian vocalists Ester Rada and Hiwot Mekonnen, who will sing songs in English, Amharic and French, while pianist and arranger Maya Dunitz will join forces with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, and the Ethiopian Church choir will perform sacred texts in the Ge’ez ancient Semitic language. Unfortunately, Tzega is not too well at present, but it is hoped that she will grace at least one of the concerts with her presence and, if she is up to it, may even perform herself.
For Ron Shama and his colleagues, while the festival is based on music, it is about much more than just providing the public with pleasant or even stirring sounds.
“This is about the music from here – our music,” he declares. “The music from the Middle East is called makam.
That is the core of the festival, which is about the music of the Torah, of the Koran and of the New Testament, of Jerusalem. Makam comes from the word makom – ‘place.’ This is the place, Jerusalem, and ‘Makom’ is also one of the names of God in Hebrew.”
There is also a strong significance to the term in Arabic, which Ron Shama feels goes far beyond the strict confines of the musical discipline.
“The musical scales in the Middle East are not called makam for no reason. Music is not just about fun and sounds. Music is the satellite of human society. It contains the library of the DNA of evolution. Music records us and plays us back to ourselves. It is a mirror that reflects exactly who we are. We can’t shut our eyes and ears and ignore it,” he asserts.
Besides helping to put the festival program together, Ron Shama will also be putting his own pennyworth into the musical fray when he showcases material from his upcoming CD, Soof. The festival slot is described as “an audio-visual odyssey from the Middle East to Africa.” True to his culture-encompassing ethos, Ron Shama will take his audience for a magical tour through prayers and the songs of nomads in several languages, “from the deserts of the Sahara to the forests of Senegal.”
One of the biggest names on the festival roster is 69-year-old Mickey Hart. Best known as one of the two drummers of the legendary Grateful Dead rock band, Hart has also explored numerous avenues of percussive expression across an abundance of ethnic domains for over 40 years. The Hart gig will take place at the amphitheater on Mount Scopus on August 22 (8 p.m.) and will, no doubt, get the members of the audience up and out of their seats in no time.
Another top-line foreign import in the four-day program is African duo Amadou & Mariam. The pair are known as “the blind couple from Mali.” The 58-year-old guitaristvocalist Amadou Bagayoko lost his vision at 16, and 53-year-old vocalist Mariam Doumbia became blind when she was five as a result of untreated measles. The two became known for performing Malian blues 30 years ago. Their international profile shot up several notches when they met Stevie Wonder, and soon began performing at major festivals all over the world. Their resumé includes synergies with the likes of rock mega group U2 and Pink Floyd leader David Gilmour. According to Ron Shama, they bring something cardinal to the Jerusalem proceedings.
“Mali is the frontier,” he says. “The energies, the spirit of life, the edge of the Sahara desert, they all flow through Mali.”
Elsewhere on the wide-ranging agenda is veteran violinist-oud player Yair Dalal’s intriguing confluence with the Vox Clamantis choir of Estonia, with a program of psalms and peace songs; the Tropos Byzantine Choir performing chants from the musical traditions of Constantinople and Mount Athos; while 63-year-old African pop superstar Salif Keita will add his own cultural and artistic offerings to the proceedings.
Zidkiyahu’s Cave will add unique acoustical ambience to the event and on August 22 will host the Psychomistica bash, fronted by Noam Inbar and the Greedy Adam group in an evening of psychedelic cantorial music. All told, there are about 40 slots to choose from over the four days.
The second annual Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival promises to be a fabulous mind-stretching, heartopening experience in some special locations.
“There is something about the tenderness of the music and the harshness of the Jerusalem stone which, for me, is magical,” notes Ron Shama. “I think everyone will have an unforgettable time.”
For more information: .