A Night Stroll
The Tower of David citadel (pictured above) in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is a crenellated Ottoman fortress, a massive bastion of limestone walls. But for the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival it’s decked out like a sort of fairyland. There are projections on the stones and coloured animations running up the circular minaret. For tonight it’s the location of what they call A Night Stroll. There are 16 performances from midnight till a sunrise concert at 5.30am.
As I step into the complex, the first person I see is Zimbabwe’s Stella Chiweshe sitting on a stone platform playing her mbira (thumb piano). The ancestral sounds of the Shona people. Performances are taking place on different levels, from down in the moat to on the top of the roof.
On the roof, a highlight is the Piyyut Ensemble of the Ben-Zvi Institute. It’s a choir of about ten men singing prayers, like a sort of Jewish qawwali, handclapping and all, accompanied by ney (flute), oud and darbouka percussion. It’s a powerful intoxicating sound – they’d appeared the previous night with Chabab Andalous, an Arab-Andalus orchestra from Morocco, to provide the highlight of the festival. For some of this I lay on my back, looking at the coloured lights rippling up the minaret, the bright moon and the constellation of Orion.
In a small inner chamber was a solo performance from Ethiopian begena player Alemu Aga (pictured above, photography by Michal Fattal). The begena is the big granddaddy of African lyres – an instrument firmly linked to the repertoire of the ancient Ethiopian church. Aga whispers rather than sings his gentle songs about the Lord, with the instrument creating what’s almost like an electronic buzz behind the voice. Seeing this instrument here seems remarkable as its popular name is the Harp of King David, the instrument played at the temple in Jerusalem and then reputedly taken to Ethiopia. It’s a privilege seeing Alemu Aga anywhere, but here within the Tower of David it’s unforgettable.
Down in the moat there was larger-than-life gospel and soul from Joshua Nelson and the Groove Ambassadors, but as the night wore on, I found myself gravitating to where there were the comfiest cushions and finding A-Wa, a trio of sisters giving their Yemenite songs a poppy twist.
Fuelled by gorgeous juices and tasty food stalls, we reached the 5.30am concert of Erhud Banai to see in the sunrise. Banai, born in Jerusalem, is a seminal figure – a sort of Israeli Bob Dylan. It was a bit too rousing for me at this time in the morning and you really need to get the words.
But an extraordinary night of visual, sensual and aural sensations.
Words and photography by Simon Broughton