Most Heathen Harvest readers will know Shlomit Levi as the female vocalist in Israeli metal band Orphaned Land from the Mabool through to ORWarriOR period. Orphaned Land’s philosophy of using music as a vehicle to improve religious accord and to highlight the similarities between Abrahamic religions is part of an ongoing movement in Israel since the 90s to spiritualise world music, infusing different cultural elements. The exact meaning of “world music” is often contested these days, with the term “fusion” being dropped for “hybridisation” especially in academic circles, but in the most simplistic terms, The Seal of Solomon, début album from Israeli Levi and American RebbeSoul, is a mixture of traditional Yemenite songs and new compositions, showcasing Levi’s incredible vocal abilities over a folk rock backing.
The Seal of Solomon describes itself as “the new wave of Jewish world music” and it’s not an ostentatious claim. Israeli traditional music attempted to enter mainstream consciousness back in the 1980s with Ofra Haza’s Yemenite Songs coercing exoticism into a Western pop market hungry for something mystical and libidinous, but these days the ethereal strains of Azam Ali and the poppier Natacha Atlas have carried the standard for wider-reaching Middle Eastern female vocal music. However, listeners expecting a similar feel from either style will find few similarities here. Though The Seal of Solomon’s vocal expression is heavily ingrained in Middle Eastern melody and the instrumentation makes use of ney and Russian balalaika, there is also the utilisation of Western guitarwork and drumming, catapulting the traditional into a more modern era.
And this is precisely the tenet which undergirds the album’s thinking. Songs such as “Abdah Bil’agual”, “Avinu” and “Ya Achdar Chudari” are traditional Yemenite numbers while the lyrics to “Tzur Menati” and “Havdalah” were written by Yemeni 17th century poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. The choice to include these songs alongside the modern compositions and Western instrumentation develops a cultural and musical conceit, highlighting the bridge between one side of the world and another while still maintaining reverence and relevance to ancient roots and ancestry. The influences go beyond just this though: given the wide-range of musical effects on Jewish culture through Aliyah it’s possible to detect all manner of global folk denominations in the music, e.g. parts of “Ya Achdar Chudari” being reminiscent of “Doroga Sna” by Russian folk band Melnitsa. Seeing as many of the Jewish settlers before state creation came from Russia, it’s not surprising that such influences might have crept into the cultural melting pot.
Where The Seal of Solomon succeeds is in its ability to create a natural fusion – or hybridisation – between one form of cultural influence and another without making the undertaking seem unnatural, though it can’t help succeeding more fully in played-down atmospheric numbers such as “Avinu” and “Abdah Bil’agual” rather than rockier numbers such as “Galbi”. Levi’s vocals are an incredible standout here, and though RebbeSoul also contributes vocals on a couple of tracks, they’re not on the same level as Shlomit’s by any means: Levi sounds natural, carefree and elated, whereas RebbeSoul sounds slightly laboured. Rebbesoul’s talents lie way more in the area of instrumentation, his guitarwork having a blues-rock feel to it in places but it’s the balalaika which gives the album the most fresh, clean and spirited appeal.
The Seal of Solomon is a forward-looking vision and a shared contemporary perspective on a traditional ethos. It is not meant to hark back to outdated clichés of Middle Eastern dreamworlds or to conjure images of veiled odalisques lounging on the other side of latticework windows. It carries a positive modern feel to it, not being particularly dark or heavy on crypticism or symbolism. Levi’s vocals undoubtedly steal the show and it’s a relief to see them get the foregrounding they so truly deserve, the feminine aspect representing the ancient side of the music and the masculine most definitively representing the modern, making The Seal of Solomon a timeless effort which upholds the strength of international and intertemporal collaboration. The spirit of this work has sprung from the virtue of unity and the drawing of inspiration from a communal source, and it is this thinking which is vital to the evolution and coexistence of differing belief systems over shared territories.
Release: 10th February 2015
02) Two Suns
03) Ya Achdar Chudari
05) Spirit (Ruchi)
06) Tzur Menati
09) Abdah Bil’agual