As Christianity comes under attack in the Arab world, a performance celebrates its rich musical heritageby Rob Sharp / June 25, 2015 / Leave a comment
These are challenging times to be a Christian in the Middle East. The place that gave birth to the religion now has the lowest concentration of Christians of any major geographic region. In 2014, Islamic State (IS) expelled Christians from Mosul, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities; in Egypt there have been anti-Coptic riots, killings and church burnings; and just this month there have been reports of attacks against Palestinian Christians.
Syria, an active IS area, is at the heart of the region’s Christian musical culture. The sixth-century Syrian-born composer St Romanos the Melodist is the patron saint of church singers in the Eastern Church. According to the historian William Dalrymple, “the Eastern tradition of sacred music takes us back to the deepest roots of Christian tradition, maintained for centuries in the fortress-like monasteries of the Eastern churches.” It was from the Eastern Mediterranean that Christianity, and its culture, spread to India, Ethiopia, Russia and beyond. Syriac melodies are sung to this day in the churches of Kerala in southern India.
A new cross-disciplinary music project, Sacred Imaginations, aims to bring together musicians with various relationships to the “Orthodox and Oriental religious and musical traditions.” Performing at King’s Place on Friday 26th June, this mixture of composed and improvised music is the work of British-Indian musician Susheela Raman and her long-term collaborator, producer and guitarist Sam Mills. Raman was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize in 2001 for her album Salt Rain, a collection of ancient Indian devotional songs set to contemporary chord structures. That blending of the old and new is something the pair are hoping to reproduce for Sacred Imaginations.
For the concert, Raman and Mills have assembled players from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including Samuel Yirga, an Ethiopian pianist signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, and Doros, a vocal quintet from Moscow who frequently perform in St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. Other participants hail from Greece, Syria and Armenia.
Listening to tracks recorded by the musicians earlier this year, Doros’s intense harmonics sound distant from Raman’s modern use of organ, vocals and strummed acoustic guitar and Yirga’s jazz piano. Yet, according to Raman, speaking after a rehearsal on Tuesday,…