The Music of Exodus

Egyptian musicians and dancers from the Tomb of Nebamun

Musicians and dancers, painted on the walls of the Tomb of Nebamun in Egypt. The photo was taken in Room 61 of the British Museum. Image credit: Ashley Van Haeften via Flickr.

Music has been a part of human expression for at least tens of thousands of years, but it’s a much rarer archaeological find than texts. The first (pretty much) complete notated song ever discovered by archaeologists, known by its classical-sounding title, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” was uncovered in modern-day Syria. It’s at least 3,200 years old, from around the general time of the Exodus. The next oldest piece of music is more than a millennium younger.

The hymn’s music is inscribed on a long slab of clay by adding numbers and tuning directions for a stringed instrument at the end of each line of poetry. The language of the Hurrians, a mysterious people whose civilization may have originated in modern Turkey, is not as well understood as Egyptian hieroglyphics. But the hymn has been deciphered to the point where we know that it is a prayer to the goddess Nikkal by a woman who wants to have children.

There are several wildly varying versions of the song on YouTube. My favorite is by Canadian musician Peter Pringle, who appropriately combines a guitar-like instrument and vocals, but there are videos by a female vocalist, a rendition on the lyre, and even a 2020 cover with a terrific explanation of the hymn’s background on a Fender electric. As you’ll hear if you click on any of the these videos, there’s nothing terribly alien to a modern ear about the hymn. All of the interpretations sound a lot like typical Middle Eastern music – minus the beat.

a tablet inscribed in the language of the hurrians. letters were made by taking soft, wet clay and using a reed cut off in a kind of wedge shape at the bottom to make an impression, then drying or firing the clay. there are no freely available images of the hurrian hymn, so this was the closest i could get to give a general idea of what it looks like. Image credit: Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s the part that seems wrong to me. Folk musics from Mongolia to the Andes are, at the very least, foot-tappers. And for me personally, as a former performing songwriter who eked out a bit of a living at it in the 1990’s, the best music always evokes an urge to sway. So when I decided to expand on the middle-grades novel I’d already written about the Ten Plagues, taking my teenage twin protagonists past the parting of the Red Sea all the way to the Mountain of God, I wanted to find a type of ancient roots music for my talented female protagonist that was thoroughly danceable.

Eventually, I found gnawa.

Sometimes spelled “gnawaa” or “gnaoua,” this powerfully rhythmic music is spiritual at its heart. Associated with both the Muslim mystic Sufis and the north African Berbers, and currently at home in Morocco, it’s not just a musical genre. It’s also a distinct people with a nomadic heritage, whose “set of musical events, performances, fraternal practices and therapeutic rituals mixing the secular with the sacred” has been inscribed on the UN’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Aziz Sahmaoui playing the gimbri in concert
Aziz Sahmaoui, the lead singer of the band university of gnawa, pictured here with his gimbri. This image is from the concert they played in 2012, as part of a French festival called Kermarrec lors du Festival du Bout du Monde à Crozon dans le Finistère. Image credit: Richard McCall via Pixabay.

The ultimate origins of gnawa are somewhat mysterious, which makes them fertile ground for me as a writer of fiction. The Berbers have lived in North Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years, leading to various connections between the Berbers and the Jews throughout history. So despite the fact that the only documented relationships between these two ancient peoples come from many centuries after the Exodus, I decided to speculate that gnawa was a breed of ur-Jewish music stemming from a proto-Israelite type of civilization.

But I freely admit that this speculation was little more than a rationalization for why I picked gnawa as the musical inspiration for my novel Midbar. I just really, really like it. It’s extremely similar to an Israeli artist I fell in love with during my first visit to the country in 1981, Shlomo Bar. For decades, I played a cassette tape of his music that I’d bought in Israel – until I threw away almost all my old tapes because I didn’t have a working cassette player anymore.

My first discovery among gnawa’s current exponents was Aziz Sahmaoui and University of Gnawa. Sahmaoui plays a three-stringed instrument variously called the gimbri, guembri, or sintir. It’s essentially a drum, covered with a stretched skin like most drums, with a neck and strings attached. The playing technique involves hitting the drum skin as you pluck the bass string, so the instrument combines percussion and melody. A lot of gimbri players, like the one in the photo at the bottom of this post, also attach other rattling instruments to the neck – or play standing up with bells on ankle bracelets. Sahmaoui lives in Paris, where there is a thriving Moroccan music scene. (If you prefer more traditional-sounding world music, sans rock drum kit, electric bass and keyboard accompanying your gimbri, check out this video, or this one.)

Singer-Songwriter Oum in 2016
Oum, whose full name is Oum El Ghaït Benessahraoui, live in concert in Frankfurt, Germany in 2016. She’s playing classic gnawa percussion instruments, clackers that provide quick  triplet rhythms to the strongly repetitive and iterative songs. Image credit: Frank C. Müller, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to find a female vocalist, since my character Talita has a beautiful voice. Unfortunately for me, there aren’t many recordings of women who sing gnawa – Sufism,  like much of traditional Islam, frowns on women performing in public. But then I found an incredible Moroccan singer and songwriter known simply as Oum. Oum blends gnawa and other North African styles with contemporary music genres like gospel and jazz, and I defy you to find  anyone playing on American pop radio today who can top her vocal technique. Her videos are also spellbinding; have a look. And here’s an article from Scene Arabia magazine that includes a few others.

The Sina’i Trilogy, at more than 150K words, is taking a long time to write – I’m in the process of rewriting Midbar right now – so after a few years of drafting, I needed more inspiration for my “Gnawa” Spotify playlist (which is linked here). I found it in a strange place: with the banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. Strictly speaking, his four-album/documentary film exploring the African roots of his instrument, titled “Throw Down Your Heart,” isn’t gnawa. But many of the tracks are similar enough for me, and they are all amazing.

So I grant you, the title of this post is misleading. Almost nothing is known for certain about how the people who lived at the time of the Exodus sang, danced and played the music of their day. All we have are clues from wall paintings of musicians and dancers in Egyptian tombs (like the one at the top of this post), and rare archaeological finds like the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal. But I’ve found enormous pleasure in the gnawa muse, if I may mash up Mediterranean cultures for a moment, and I hope you do too. Once again, here is my complete Spotify playlist.

A gimbri player in Morocco. Image credit: Thesupermat, Post navigation

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