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Bringing Morocco's Sacred Music to Jerusalem

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The Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival recently brought a new tradition to the holy city. For 24 consecutive hours, artists and musicians from Israel and abroad shared a variety of musical traditions last Thursday, September 6, through the wee hours of the next morning.

Centered at Jerusalem's Tower of David, the festival venues were chosen to reflect a message of interfaith unity and sanctity at historical venues reflective of Jerusalem's diverse faiths.

Musical events and shows were held at Zedekiah's Cave in the Old City and Notre Dame across the road from the New Gate. In addition to taking part in a Slichot workshop, festival participants also had the opportunity to tour the Ethiopian, Franciscan and Armenian morning prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The music festival featured esoteric, meditative and ceremonial music from Azerbaijan, Iran, Africa, Morocco, Iraq, Brazil and India, as well as a Sufi dance workshop. The festival opened with Persian music and chants performed by two Iranian musicians based in Canada, the brothers Kiya and Zia Tabassian, who played and sang together with Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco.

Other international artists included Morocco's Hassan Hakmoun and his New York-based ensemble, who performed ancient African Islamic folk music of the Islamic Gnawa sect, descendants of West African slaves brought to North Africa several hundred years ago.

Speaking with me, Hakmoun described his childhood growing up in Marrakech, Morocco. "I grew up in a musical family in Morocco. My mother is mystic music healer and I learned the Gnawan musical traditions from a young age."

"This is my second time in Israel," added Hakmoun, who performed in Tel Aviv in 1994. Hakmoun, who is Muslim, believes that people can live as one. "When you come to Jerusalem, you see churches, mosques and synagogues, next to each other. There is a peacefulness here that you never see on TV."

"The most amazing part of this city, is seeing how the footsteps of all the world's major religions have passed through here -- the prophets actually walked through these neighborhoods," said Hakmoun.

Hakmoun moved to the United States in his early twenties with his family and made his first U.S. musical debut at Lincoln Center in 1987. He has since then performed widely across the U.S. and internationally and produced several albums, fusing traditional Gnawan music with American sounds, and making the Gnawan musical and dance tradition a popular element in the American music scene.

"In Morocco, Gnawa music wasn't so popular when I was growing up, but thanks to the major Gnawa World Music Festival in Essaouira that was spear-headed by the senior adviser to Morocco's King Mohammed, André Azoulay, who is also Jewish, our traditional music has become much more appreciated in my home country," explained Hakmoun.

Playing the sintir, a three-stringed lute with a body made of camel skin stretched over nutwood, Hakmoun sang soulful and spiritual Gnawan rhythms with his ensemble, to a mostly Israeli audience at the Tower of David on Thursday night. Of the many chants and songs that were played, Hakmoun also included a prayer for peace for the region.

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Photo: Anav Silverman, Tazpit News Agency / Description: International Gnawan musician, Hassan Hakmoun at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, Israel last week.