Corinne Allal singing Ecclesiastes. It has the sound of an unlikely partnership; the 59-year-old rocker singing the deep thoughts of an ancient writer bemoaning his life.
Unlikely, yes, agreed Allal. But she found it interesting, especially once she had read Ecclesiastes and considered the possibilities.
“They told me they got permission from a rabbi for me to sing it” — presumably because some Orthodox Jews eschew the sound of a woman’s voice singing — Allal said, her raspy smoker’s laugh emerging over the phone. “I immediately said yes.”
“They” were the organizers of Jerusalem’s annual Oud Festival, seeking the right enticement to lure Allal into joining the event for the first time. She’s opening the festival on Thursday night, backed by an oud, saxophone, drums, piano, bass and a DJ.
But first she had to tackle the ancient book.
This was the first time Allal had ever read Ecclesiastes, one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.
For Allal, who’s been ready to do something different for a while — “they keep on telling me to come out with a new album and I say I have nothing new,” she said — singing Ecclesiastes was clearly her opportunity.
The veteran rocker, who was born in Tunisia and moved to Israel when she was eight, is often considered Israel’s Melissa Etheridge or Laurie Anderson. With eight original albums, including “Antartica”, “Zan Nadir and “When It’s Deep,” she’s a fixture on the Israeli music scene.
It was last May when Allal first agreed to the Ecclesiastes challenge, and she began by copying the book, by hand, into a notebook. She copied it in its entirety 10 times in total, a method that she has always used when writing songs.
Understanding it, however, was another story.
Some scholars believe that Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, the son of King David, as an autobiography toward the end of his life.
There’s disagreement as to what the book is about, given its dual messages affirming life while commenting pessimistically on its futility. In synagogues, Ecclesiastes is read during the holiday of Sukkot. Some say that’s in order to remind people that the rest of the calendar isn’t as joyous as Sukkot.
While considered to contain great wisdom, Ecclesiastes can be tough to understand.
“It was hard to read the first time because I didn’t understand all the words,” said Allal, “and then I realized I have to punctuate it.”
She ended up adding her own form of commentary to the ancient terms, using symbols like hearts, suns and clouds to offer additional meaning and context to the text.
What Allal said she discovered was that King Solomon, if he were indeed the author, was using the concept of sound in his writing.
“I thought, ‘Yo, I love sound,’ that’s my thing in life,” said Allal. “He’s saying, ‘in the room of rooms, don’t curse a king,’ which is saying that if you say something wrong, don’t think that no one hears because a bird could be sitting in the window and could take your sound to a far place. I said, ‘Yo, he gets that sound is a wave that travels.’”
Allal ultimately found the narrative soulful and sad, the story of a king who had everything he could possibly need, but had no one in his life who would inherit all that he had earned and built. He was the third monarch in three generations of kings, he had built the Temple, but realized as he grew older that he had no one to inherit his legacy.
For Allal, the message of Ecclesiates was clear: “You should do the thing that’s important to you, what you need, to go forward, because there is so much pain in life,” she said.
The task of putting this saga to music felt almost overwhelming at first, said Allal. She tried breaking it into sections, and at first decided to start at the mention of the word ganot, the biblical term for a garden or plantation. Allal lives in Ganot, a moshav in the country’s center.
The mention of Solomon’s gardens was in the middle of the book, though, not at the beginning, and ultimately didn’t make sense as a starting point. She decided instead to embark on the piece from the beginning, a somewhat formidable task, but she gave herself one month to figure it out.
“I had my wedding in June, and I wanted this behind me, that was my deadline,” she said. “I prepared it in one fell swoop.”
Allal and her longtime partner, Ruthie Paran, married at their home in Ganot in June, surrounded by family and friends.
Now, months later and days before her Thursday premiere, the piece is fleshed out, accompanied by Allal on guitar and her usual band, including Oren Latz on guitar and bass; Ilan Koren on saxophone; Yoel Ben Simchon on oud; Michal Gottlieb on piano and Sharon Ben Ezer, a DJ who heard about Allal’s new project and suggested adding electronics to the piece. It’s about an hour long, said Allal.
Everyone in the band received a copy of Ecclesiastes before they began rehearsing.
“We talk about the meaning and the chapters,” she said. “We use old Hebrew and new English when we talk about it.”
Allal said she feels like she was next to King Solomon while she was learning the work, and what emerged was something very different from what she’s done before.
“It’s more mono,” she said. “Today, in our music, we have harmonies and chords and there’s a lot of work on harmony. But this is the most simple music, it’s clean, without trying to be big and impressive. It’s what’s needed.”
It looks like Allal has found her next album.
Jerusalem Oud Festival, “Slaves on Horses, Rulers in Chains,” Corinne Allal sings Ecclesiastes; Thursday, November 6, Sherover Hall, Jerusalem Theater