When we think of religious music, many of us will come up with our favorite hymns, while some may think of one of the many brilliant sacred works of the classical genre or even Gregorian chant. But what about music sung in Hebrew and set to the traditional musical style of the Middle East?
Yamma Ensemble, a music group specializing in original and traditional Hebrew music, has done a masterful job setting Psalm 104 to a traditional Jewish Babylonian-style melody and utilized the original ancient Hebrew lyrics, just as King David wrote it.
The band plays traditional Hebrew instruments — duduk, ney, kopuz, oud, shofar — and sings in ancient Hebrew in order to bring their audience the most authentic early Jewish music available. On their website, they talk about their style:
“It creates the feeling of ancient times, strong sense of spiritual heritage & tradition although the materials are sometimes original and contemporary.”
The public seems to agree with them, as they have performed their unique brand of ancient music with a modern taste all over the world. Funny enough, they never expected the band to succeed in such a way. The band began as just a group of friends who enjoyed the sounds of their ancestors.
One of the things that identifies Middle Eastern music and separates it from Western music is that it follows a system of quarter-tones. Imagine if each fret of a guitar, or key on a piano, were separated from the next by another fret or key with a tone halfway between the two. These new notes would be quarter tones. What sounds like melisma to us is actually a carefully constructed melodic line.