Through the ages many traditions have sung hymns and worship songs based on the popular music of the day with the secular lyrics replaced by religious themes and words. It’s also a tradition called piyyut among the Mizrahi, the Jews of the Middle East. The American-based women’s ensemble Divahn is bringing the music of this vibrant tradition to modern audiences and in some cases updating it a bit to reflect what’s going on in the world today. Led by the powerful Persian-American singer and composer Galeet Dardashti, Divahn’s latest release Shalhevet brings these traditional Sephardi and Mizrahi songs up to date with Western and Middle Eastern stringed instruments, Indian, Middle Eastern and Latin percussion, and lyrics in Hebrew, Persian and Arabic.
The ensemble’s name Divahn is a word that means a collection of songs or poetry in Hebrew, Persian and Arabic languages. In addition to Galeet (who is also a writer and anthropology professor) Divahn is Megan Gould on violin, viola and kamanche, an ancient Persian bowed fiddle; Eleanor Norton on cello; Elizabeth Pupo-Walker on cajon, congas and other percussion; and Sejal Kukadia on tabla – all contribute harmony vocals. They’re joined by several guests on oud, bass, percussion, and the tambourine known as the riqq, on various songs.
The album’s title Shalhevet comes from the Hebrew word for flame or blaze. The group chose that title with the hope that their emphasis on the things Middle Eastern cultures and religions have in common will be “a flaming bonfire” in today’s world that seems to need such a source of communal warmth and light.
But don’t expect warm fuzzy “Kumbayah” songs from them. Some of these tracks sound positively defiant. I’m thinking especially of “El Nora Alilah,” which is totally driven by tabla and drums and the passionate call-and-response vocals of Galeet and the ensemble. Its lyrics are from an 11th century prayer chanted during the final service of Yom Kippur, its melody from Persia. In fact, Galeet grew up hearing her father chanting it.
Also especially notable is the opening track “Ya’alah ya’alah,” its words taken from the biblical Song of Songs, its tune a popular 20th century Syrian love song “Ya Tira Tiri.” It opens with a catchy cello riff to which Galeet sings a countermelody, and Gould joins with another counterpoint on viola. Galeet’s vocals are especially impressive on this one, and the ensemble harmonies when they come in are stunning. As they are on “Am Ne’emanay,” a Morrocan Chanukah lyric set to an Iraqi love song – this one is almost minimalist in arrangement with droning cello and violin complementing the soaring vocals. In the instrumental opening section, there’s a great combination of tabla drum and pizzicato violin whose tones are so close that you have to pay close attention to tell them apart.
“Ayni Tzofiah” reminds me of Bulgarian folk music, with its droning cello-violin intro followed by a frenzied dance number. This one, a song of longing for Jerusalem, is a 20th century Syrian Jewish song set to an Arabic love song known as “Il-Arasiya.” Galeet’s passionate wail on the final note is truly impressive.
“Hamavdil” is another example of a beautiful arrangement. It’s an ancient Spanish song set to a modern Persian melody; a beautiful prayer in multiple harmonies, it ends with an impressive tabla solo with Sejal (I assume) singing along on the tabla part. And that song leaps right into the album’s one instrumental, “Khazan,” or Autumn, by Iranian santur virtuoso Parviz (Ostad) Meshkatian.
Also notable is Divahn’s version of “Banu Choshech,” a popular children’s Chanukah song worldwide. Arranged with a simple dialog between cello and viola, backed with exotic-sounding percussion and with some quarter-tones added to the melody, it’s Divahn’s response to what it sees as a darkness in world affairs since 2016. A passionate viola solo from Megan combines Middle Eastern, Western classical, and klezmer styles; the song begins with a small children’s choir and ends with a lovely passage of adult four-part vocal harmonies on the lyrics that supplied the album with its title:
We’ve come to chase away the darkness
We bear light and fire
Each glimmer is small
But together, our blaze is fierce
The self-released CD comes in a beautiful package with notes on all the songs by Galeet. Highly recommended to anyone who likes Middle Eastern music and women’s vocal harmony.