Groove and tradition meet at Jerusalem’s Sacred Music Festival

Groove and tradition meet at Jerusalem’s Sacred Music Festival

The final event of the truncated Jerusalem Season of Culture offers four days of coexistence, holy yearnings and divine music

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Gil Ron Shama has been singing and working toward peace for 25 years, and now brings his message to Jerusalem's Sacred Music Festival (Courtesy Gil Ron Shama)
Gil Ron Shama has been singing and working toward peace for 25 years, and now brings his message to Jerusalem's Sacred Music Festival (Courtesy Gil Ron Shama)

It was several weeks before the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s Sacred Music Festival, and after a summer of war and despair, musician and ambassador of goodwill Gil Ron Shama was having a hard time grooving with the concept of peace.

“Sometimes I’m dead tired of this, just exhausted,” said Shama. “This war felt like — what can I do with all this? I can’t even say the word shalom. But things pass and change and in the end, people want to be able to pray together.”

In next week’s festival, Shama will be participating with what he calls Abraham’s Tent, part of the flagship event called A Night Stroll — an all-night performance of music and chants with fellow musicians, held from midnight to sunrise on Thursday.

There is no actual tent, but he named the event for Abraham, the forefather common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because “he’s a symbol of what joins us,” said Shama.

Brotherhood is just one of the ideas behind the festival, a regular portion of the now-annual Jerusalem Season of Culture, which has experienced a truncated season of postponements and cancellations due to the rocket fire and war in Gaza.

The four-day festival, which runs from Tuesday, September 9, through Friday, September 12, is geared toward tolerance and hope, said Tamar Gur, who handles publicity for the festival, concepts that have been in short supply this summer.

“The festival this year is more important than ever after the summer that was extremely difficult for all of us and generated a great deal of friction within Israel and Jerusalem in particular,” said Gur. “I hope that the festival will provide a brilliant ray of light in these dark times and bring people together.”

Most of the events — formal performances and more informal tours, meetings and concerts held throughout the afternoon and evening — will be held in the Tower of David Museum and Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood just outside Jerusalem’s old City.

There are singers and musicians visiting from abroad, including The Klezmatics and Joshua Nelson from the US (performing twice, on Tuesday and Wednesday) and the Moroccan Orchestre Chabab Al Adalous (Wednesday).

The first night’s performance featuring Ballaké Sissoko from Mali and French classicist Vincent Segal is already sold out. There are also local musicians performing throughout the week, such as Berry Sakharof and Shuli Rand (Tuesday), Ehud Banai (early Friday morning) and Emil Zrihan, Yossi Fine, Shlomo Bar and Karolina (Friday afternoon).

During the late afternoons, evenings and late into the night, participants can listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer with a rabbi and a sheikh, hear Sephardic prayers of penitence, tour Ein Kerem’s churches and meet with Franciscan monks.

There will be singing, chanting and listening at Abraham’s Tent as well, said Shama.

It isn’t the first time he has erected a symbolic peace tent and filled it with fellow musicians of different stripes. He’s hopeful every time.

Half Ashkenazi, half Mizrahi, Shama, a drummer, calls himself a Hebrew and a Jew who speaks Arabic and has spent 25 years working toward peace. Sometimes he does it with his ethnic drums and chants, as he did in the band Sheva, an Israeli world music band of Arab and Jewish musicians, perhaps best known for its song “Salaam.”

Shama also has mediation skills learned in Yugoslavia, when he worked with warring Bosnian and Serbs. Israel’s Foreign Ministry named him its ambassador of goodwill in Muslim countries.

“I don’t think I’m on any side,” he said. “There are days that I get up and think about peace and other days when I get up and say I have to stop all this. But I never do it alone.”

That’s the idea behind the tent, said Shama.

“I know some people can’t accept that truth, but it’s physiological and it’s archaeological, it’s historical, it’s theological,” he said. “We’re the sons of Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac, and we’re one nation. It all depends how you look at it.”

One of the musicians performing with Shama is George Yousef Siman, a Christian Arab oud and violin player from the north. He’ll also be performing with Ehud Banai on Friday, as he is a regular member of Banai’s band.

Siman has a penchant for working with Israeli musicians and in coexistence projects, but he doesn’t like the term; he prefers “existence” instead.

George Yousef (left) with Ehud Banai (second from left) will be playing a dawn concert on Friday for the Sacred Music Festival (Courtesy Ehud Banai Facebook page)
George Yousef Siman (left) with Ehud Banai (second from left) will be playing a dawn concert on Friday for the Sacred Music Festival (Courtesy Ehud Banai Facebook page)

“It’s about living like humans, together,” said Siman. “I say that you can do it differently. You can bring love, you can bypass the obstacles. I look at a person as a person; and I have the sense that I have friends in this world whom I haven’t met yet.”

It’s a festival full of like-minded thinkers.

Rabbi Hacham David Menachem is another, a bard of the piyyut, the traditional poem of penitence and consolation, who learned his craft from his Iraqi grandfather and splits his time between being a community rabbi and using his ancient poetry to connect with Muslim friends and colleagues.

The idea is to make different types of prayer known to others, to render them more familiar, said Menachem, who will be listening to the muezzin’s call to prayer from a rooftop of the Tower of David Museum with his good friend, Sufi Sheikh Ghasan Manasra.

“The muezzin can make people scared and a naive person can use it towards politics,” said Menachem, who grew up in Nachlaot. “I want people to understand that it’s a call to God.”

Menachem, a community rabbi in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rasko, also writes and speaks Arabic, helpful skills in his ongoing coexistence work, which is how he met Manasra, the director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Nazareth, a center promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

“It was music and theology that brought me to all this,” said Menachem. “I can’t say what got me into it, but we’re two nations that live together and  you have to know how to talk together about what you know, and what you don’t know.”

The two religious leaders, friends for many years, will sing songs about religion, about loving people and God.

“We want people to come and not just watch, but to be part of the experience,” he said. “People should pray with us, each in their language. That’s what we’ll hope for.”

It comes back to Shama’s words about healing the rifts, and doing so in the space between the spiritual and artistic worlds, something he’s been trying to span for years.

“Artists just tend to shut up,” said Shama. “They don’t say what they’re really thinking. But we want to give people the strength and courage to speak up, to try to sing together. When you look for what you have in common, you can get somewhere.”

Times and tickets for the events are available through the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. Venues are small, and space is limited.

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