Voices of the Levites

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February 25, 2010

Before I left Israel, I bought a cheap religious charm in the shape of a crown. It cost just a few shekels (less than a dollar) and was light as a dime. Empty sockets dotted the peaks of the crown where fake gems had once been glued.

This little trinket symbolized everything about Judaism I had kept at a distance when I was living in Israel. The crown represents the kingship of God, but also the kingship of David and his prophesized heir in the messianic future. It’s a symbol redolent of meaning for right-wing nationalists and messianists who hope for a Third Temple, believing that by reinstating the Davidic monarchy, priesthood, and animal sacrifice, they are hastening olam haba, the promised end of days.

So why did I buy it? Call me weird, but I find the violent and visceral origins of our religion fascinating, an aspect of Judaism that is both surreal and terrifying and yet has a lurid appeal. Judaism was once a religion based around a central Temple where Jews made sacrifices to their God, an historical fact that is easy to forget. But contemplating these dark origins reveals the primal need of human consciousness in its quest for intimacy with the divine.

It’s those violent and corporeal urges – to touch, witness, and destroy in the name of a god (or God) – that are so often whitewashed by the liberal religious establishment, while simultaneously harnessed by militant radicals, cultists, and other marginalized revitalization movements. If we ignore those aspects of our history and religious practice, we are leaving them to the violent fanatics who claim to be the exclusive representatives of the authentic core of the tradition.

This is part of my excitement with the Israeli band Kolot HaLevi’im (Voices of the Levites). On first glance, the band seems to be another musical hybrid in the style of Ya’ir Dalal and Yaron Pe’er, injecting Arabic musical traditions with a distinctly Israeli aesthetic that mixes Mediterranean, Indian, and North African influences. Yet it’s only when one looks closely at their self-titled debut, Voices of the Levites, that the full scope of the project comes into focus. The record’s subtitle, Be’ekvot Kley HaNegina HaAbudim Shel HaMikdash, can be translated roughly as “inspired by the lost musical instruments of the Temple.” In short, the music on this album was made entirely on artistic reconstructions of musical instruments that were played in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. With this undertaking in the background, the band dives headlong into the murky waters of the Jewish theocratic tradition and comes up with something striking in form and content.

While many of the ancient instruments that are described in the Tanakh are still known today (the lute and cymbal, for example), some have disappeared entirely. Besides the conjecture of medieval commentators and modern-day scholars, little is known about what these instruments might have looked like, what they sounded like, or when they were played. It’s unclear in some texts if these were instruments at all or the names of prayers or songs.

The premise of making music inspired by lost instruments is thought-provoking, but Ilan Green, the band’s leader, takes this experimentaition one step further by deciding to build these instruments from scratch (with a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation). Shminit, almut, neginot, gitit, nekhilot, makhol, ogev, asur, yeduton, shoshanim, magrayfa, eyelet hashakhar (literally “the deer of dawn”) – these are some of the evocative names of the mysterious instruments he reconstructed. He is careful to specify that his constructions are not intended as historical models but rather artistic creations. They are “the fruit of a prolonged creative process,” he writes in the liner notes. This process included learning how to actually play music on these unique creations.

The source texts that provide the inspiration for these musical objects, from psalms to the Talmud to the scrolls of Qumran, serve an additional role as enigmatic lyrics to the music they generate. The end result are songs which, in Green’s own words, “tell the stories of these instruments [and] present pictures of the day-to-day life of the period.” The album then is an attempt to resurrect the immaterial lives of these ancient Jews, a kind of inspirational archeology of sound and prayer.

There is no doubt a lurking sense of longing in this music, a nostalgia for the lost past, but the sentiment is subtle and playful, expressed in the diverse influences on display. The overall sound is far from maudlin; rather, it is haunted and at times dark and atonal, alternating between frenetic and languid. These songs meander in a fashion that is non-linear but always engaging, occasionally lapsing into a pleasant, minimalist drone, similar to an Indian raga, accompanied by trance-like choral singing. They are unexpected and curious in both senses of the word, as if the listener and the musicians are both exploring these songs for the first time together. These texts, reanimated in lively arrangements, feel like ancient tombs, dank and ghostly, buzzing with forgotten holiness that is stirred once again by new visitors.

One of the opening songs, HaMemuney, presents a long passage from the Mishnah detailing the rituals for an average man to make an offering in the Temple. Like so much of the Mishnah, it’s the kind of text that reads with a surreal mix of minute technicality and mystical declaration, a script of correct actions sporadically breached by abrupt statements reminding the reader of the metaphysical import of these rituals. While it may be as dry as court proceedings, when read over the atmospheric sound of these minimalist instruments, the overall effect is hypnotizing. (“They arrive, these and these. They say, ‘Shalom. Hakol shalom.’” A greeting we have lost: “Peace. Everything is peace.”)

Then there is the gorgeous rendition of Ani Yeshena Ve Libi Er, a traditional niggun featuring lines from the Song of Songs. With nimble, precise vocals by Avital Raz, the song is propelled over unexpected percussion and sudden waves of melody that mimic the knocking of the lover on the door. It’s an appealing and original interpretation for this lyric poem of timeless longing.

Towards the end of the album, there is Hamon HaRukhot, a song that borrows from the Scrolls of Qumran, leading us through a dizzying spell of recitation that alternates between soothing and dissonant, pierced by the odd yet familiar sound of the string instrument – kinor daveed, David’s harp – whose harsh cords are redolent with the same human we hear in its descendants, the oud and the fiddle.

These songs express a sincere fascination with the beguiling texts that the ancient Jews of the Temple period have left us. For these modern day Levites, the texts are blueprints for recreating the internal experience of ancient Judaism. Which leads one to wonder, what sets the musical dreams of Kolot HaLevi’im apart from the fantasies of Jewish fundamentalists? No doubt, the staunchly secular will find this whole project, with its admittedly Zionist funder, to be inherently problematic, adding power to the dangerous dreams of the religious right, and propelled by a fascination that is too ardent to be benign. It is true that the allure of religious fundamentalists is the same as that of artists and dreamers of all kinds – of anyone fully engaged in imagining an alternate reality. In this way, Kolot HaLevi’im has something in common with the Jewish fundamentalist. For both, the idea of the Temple is the impetus for imagining a different way of seeing and being in the world. One makes beautiful, inventive music; the other hopes to tear down a mosque and start World War III.

The brilliance of Kolot HaLevi’im is how the band steps into the imagined world of the Temple while keeping a foot in our secular modern reality, both memorializing and subverting the stark realities of theocratic worship. In fact, if the Temple were built tomorrow by our current fanatics, Kolot HaLevi’im could never play in its vicinity since, with the divine sounds of Avital Raz, they have already transgressed the common prohibition against kol isha, the voice of woman’s singing being heard by men to whom she’s not directly related. The use of apocrypha alongside the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Psalms also places the band far afield from normative Orthodoxy. And it is through these details that the band finds a way to tap into the beauty and mystery of these texts without dragging along their political implications. In the process, they infuse the mysticism of ancient Jewish worship with others traditions – Hindu and Muslim most prominently – and give birth to an inspired work of musical miscegenation. Kolot HaLevi’im takes perhaps the most distant and alien element of the Jewish tradition and make magical, beautiful, and even blissful, and lightens what could be a heavy, polemical album.

However, what I find most striking in this album is not the brilliant maneuvering of Israel’s spiritual politics. Rather, it’s the synthesis of dramatically different forms of mysticism: that of ancient monotheistic worship with that of contemporary experimental music and the high modern culture that created it. In this music, we can find the harmonious combination of these two radically diverse worldviews, coming together in modern Israel. It reminds us that all good music is transcendent in someway, whether in the contemplative abstraction of jazz, the carnal flow of house and techno, or the raw emotion of punk and lyrical rock music. Kolot HaLevi’im takes this medium, immaterial and immediate, and uses it as an unexpected channel to a distant past, raising questions about the nature of tradition. What does it mean to say anything is “lost”? The project is a brilliant experiment in finding (and rebuilding) those dark and forgotten realms of our tradition in a way that resonates with the modern spirit.

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