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Sacred song in biblical Aramaic

12 July 2013

Andrew Brown hears a tradition-guarding singer, Abeer Nehme, in Morocco

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ABEER NEHME is a Lebanese Maronite singer with a voice as clear and powerful as sunlight in the Arctic. She does not beat the listener down, but simply seems to annihilate the boundary between the solid world and light.

Performing at the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco, she sang for an hour and a quarter, mostly in Aramaic, but sometimes in Byzantine Greek, backed by a five-piece band. The intervals were as strange as the language, and even when she explained what she was doing - at one point she performed the Lord's Prayer as a song in Aramaic - it was scarcely possible to follow the text in one's head; but none of that mattered, compared with the wordless communications involved.

Talking afterwards - she speaks at least three languages, and sings in 18 - she discussed her love for the Syriac Aramaic tradition, which was once widespread over the Middle East, but is now found in diaspora all round the world as well, after various catastrophes for the Christians of that region, starting with the Turkish persecution of the Armenians in 1915.

"In Maaloula in Syria they still speak the exact same Aramaic as in biblical days," she says. Everywhere else, the vocabulary has changed, and absorbed words from other languages. The traditional language is kept alive only in songs and in liturgies, but some of hers date from the fourth century, when a reforming archbishop adapted worldly tunes for sacred purposes. "It was the first Christian music in the world. In the old days, the Church prevented people from using Aramaic for secular lyrics and purposes."

Greek sacred music developed in turn from this tradition in Byzantium, but moved away, becoming more elaborate and more of an élite production, while "the Syriac music kept with the poor people."

She retains an old-fashioned purism about these things. The daughter of a Lebanese army officer, she was brought up during the civil war with a high appreciation of the value of culture. Her father used to insist that she learned a new song every day after her other lessons were over, and would sing it to her when she came home. Now she rejects the commercialisation of her music, or its assimilation into the secular culture.

"I do not want to sing where people are drinking arak and toasting each other. Art, good art, represents how good is the people, and how educated, and how open. In our days, everything is going down, down, down" - her hands descend like an aeroplane coming in to land - "and the music is going down, down, down; and I don't want to be part of that."

Instead, she is completing a doctorate in musicology. If you get a chance to see her, do so.

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