The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

I heard that the blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for his guitar-playing genius, that Paganini was the devil’s violinist and the devil himself is a fiddle player. That was reported as fact to a folklore researcher and quoted in his article The Devil and the Fiddle in 1943. He was told:

I grew up in Chicago and Aurora. And one of the earliest things I can remember about my fiddle, that my old uncle told me ‘the Devil was in the fiddle’. He was my guardian and he wouldn’t let me take lessons.

I can play The Devil Among the Tailors on the violin, but I didn’t know about the Devil’s Interval until yesterday’s event with Yair Dalal performing Iraqi Jewish music on violin and oud. He explained that one of the pieces he was about to play featured the Devil’s Interval (Diabolus in Musica), or tritones. Traditionally it is shunned in Western classical music but it features in heavy metal, at least according to an article linking Black Sabbath, medieval theology and the tritone.  Yair told us that it’s used unflinchingly in Iraqi maqam, the traditional musical system which is about much more than Arabic musical scales and is also about form, melody and rhythm – but not harmony which doesn’t feature.

Yair Dalal

I’ve blogged previously about Iraqi Jewish music but yesterday I learned a lot more. Yair was in conversation with Sara Manasseh, who directs the Rivers of Babylon ensemble. I was their violinist for a few years in the band’s early days and it’s great to know they are still going and have recorded many more CDs since. Sara is an ethnomusicologist and her comprehensive book, Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition has the words and music for some of the songs Yair performed.

Shbahoth

It also has words and music for the song from the Mosul tradition that I introduced to the band. There’s even a credit to my late father Menashe.

Eliahu Eliahu (2)

Yair played some of his own compositions, traditional works by medieval poets such as Ibn-Gabirol, and twentieth century songs by Saleh Al-Kuwaity. Al-Kuwaity composed around 800 songs but after most of the Jewish community, including the musicians who made up the radio orchestra, left Iraq in the early 1950s their names were removed from their works. That’s now changing and knowledge of Iraq’s popular music history is being revived. Yair explained that most musicians in Iraq had been Jewish, so when the Jews left the musicians felt a heavy responsibility. They stayed in Baghdad until the last possible moment in order to record their music so it wouldn’t be lost.

I can remember going to a talk Sara gave many years ago where she played examples of traditional songs, and someone in the audience rudely asked if the performers had any training. I guess if you’re only used to a few simple genres of Western music and flinch at anything unfamiliar you might assume there was nothing complex, difficult or refined about these strange sounds and that they’re merely uncouth. Luckily audiences have mostly changed from those days. Yair’s training, he told us, when he was a young man living and working in the desert involved overnight five hour journeys each way, and then two solid days of study and rehearsal before going back to his home and work. He did that for years. He is from an Iraqi Jewish family although he was born in a transition camp in northern Israel, and grew up in an area where there were many Iraqi Jewish musicians who were constantly performing, at a time when their music was out of fashion in Isaeli society generally.

The Baghdad Bandstand clips on YouTube are a great way to see and hear some celebrated Iraqi musicians jamming, chatting and explaining what they’re playing – not in English but there are subtitles.  If you’re in London you may also be able to get to Yair Dalal’s masterclass on Monday 11th September at SOAS, or to East meets West A Concert for Peace, on September 27. Or you can listen to a younger generation of musicians reviving the old songs and putting them to new beats.

The rock musician Dudu Tassa is a grandson of the other al-Kuwaity (or al-Kuwaiti) brother. Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis have been touring and recording songs from his relatives’ back catalogue and it seems that through their versions this music, originally from Baghdad, is getting popular back in Iraq once again after a long interval.

 

The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah

Amulets are still everywhere. You might have noticed them in cabs dangling from rear mirrors, behind the serving counter in a takeaway, and worn as necklaces or rings. They go back thousands of years. I didn’t know what an amulet was until I read Edith Nesbit’s The story of the amulet, and even then I didn’t connect the object in that children’s story – Egyptian, and solid – with a pendant I was given as a child. I lost it long ago (probably stolen in a burglary) but it was a tiny hinged gold box, in the shape of two tablets of stone with Hebrew letters representing the ten commandments. I thought it was a locket and it was always empty. I couldn’t think why it was a box or what anyone would put inside it.

An eye, a blue stone, or a hand (often with an eye or blue stone inside) meant to ward off the Evil Eye are typical amulet symbols.

eye amulethand eye 2hand and eye

But the supreme magical power of an amulet was always meant to come from mystical words, especially the secret names of God, and the names of angels and demons. An amulet could be a scrap of paper or parchment, with charms and spells written around it in an intricate pattern. Amulet writing, like the selling of pardons in medieval Christianity, was once a lucrative trade.

L0043622 Hebrew Manuscript amulet for the protection...from the plague A pendant for carrying round an amulet needed to be hollow, like this:

amulet bottle

My favourite items in an amazing exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago were the amulets. Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is in Cambridge University Library, free and on until early October. The Genizah was a store of old documents in the attic of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. Ben Ezra was also known as the synagogue of the Palestinians or the synagogue of the Jerusalemites. There was also a separate synagogue in Fustat (now known as Old Cairo) for the Babylonian community. Documents of all kinds, not only religious texts but letters, marriage contracts, lists, legal decisions, medical writings, charitable appeals, accounts, charms and even children’s alphabet books couldn’t be destroyed because they might contain the name of God or other holy words and letters. The store was eventually dispersed and bought up by collectors, so now teams of researchers in several universities are working on conserving, restoring and translating them. Cambridge has around 200,000 documents and they are an immense resource for historians, as they range across many countries and communities and hundreds of years.  Most of the texts on display are around a thousand years old and were written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic language written in Hebrew letters) or Hebrew. In the middle ages, most of the world’s Jewish population lived in Islamic lands and children learned to write Arabic using Hebrew letters. There are translations of all the documents, and the exhibition guide also notes the languages they are in.

The tiny ‘Scorpion amulets’ in the exhibition, intended to protect their buyers against scorpion bites,  were from Egypt, 11th or 12th century. The curators wonderfully describe the language of these scraps of paper as ‘Hebrew, Aramaic and gibberish’. Carrying an amulet was normal practice even though amulets, and their writers, were condemned by Maimonides who wrote a diatribe against them. (There’s a signed letter from Maimonides in the exhibition.)

Scorpions scare me a lot. My father told me that in his youth in Mosul he had known of a five year old child who died of a scorpion bite. They can be deadly. It strikes me that the danger we face now is totally different, but there are people who say that it can be warded off through the right, powerful words. Yesterday I heard a pro-Brexit economist explaining that the economy was not in any trouble, and that he didn’t expect any damage to the economy as long as people said the right positive things about Brexit. So words are what we need, not actual plans, which is a relief if you read this month’s briefing by three Sussex professors,  A Food Brexit: time to get real. If it wasn’t for the sheer, charming, magical power of positive language we would be heading for trouble.

Inspired by the Scorpion amulets I’ve created a Brexit amulet. It has names of power with a little gibberish thrown in for good measure. If we all wear one of these, nothing could possibly go wrong, could it? That’s pretty much the pro-Brexit economists’ plan actualised: the power of positive words.  Seriously, I recommend reading and sharing the briefing on what might happen to the UK’s food supply in future, given that the government currently has no plan. As the authors put it,

The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.

Scarier than a scorpion.

BrexitmeansBrexitmeans$&%$&it

MaynotMaynot******MaynotMay

F***B££££G$$$F***FoxF***BJMG

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ואברגציתלואברגציתלואברגציתלואלאו

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah