Rivers of Babylon specialises in the religious and secular music of the Iraqi Jewish tradition: instrumentals, folk songs and hymns (shbahoth) for Sabbaths, festivals and life cycle events, sung in Hebrew—in the Babylonian (Iraqi) pronunciation, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Arabic. The melodies are composed in the melodic modes (angham or maqamat) of Arab music, and reflect characteristics of Iraqi folk song.
Most of the group members have known each other since childhood and were born into the Baghdadian Jewish community in India (Bombay and Calcutta), thus representing a cultural tradition which was transported from Iraq to India and now to the UK. The group includes ethnomusicologists, an expert on the Chinese erhu (spike fiddle), architects, a writer, accountant, secretary and fire prevention officer.
Most of the songs performed are known as shbahoth (literally ‘praises’), the most popular type of hymn in the Jewish Babylonian (Iraqi) tradition. Known as ‘pizmonim’ or ‘zemiroth’ in other Jewish traditions, shbahoth (singular: ‘shbah’) are paraliturgical songs for daily use, Sabbaths, festivals, weddings and births.
They are usually sung around the dinner table, during or following a festive meal, though they may also be sung at synagogue, on pilgrimage, or other occasions. The texts are especially composed poems, of a religious nature, often expressing national troubles and hopes, and of beauty and literary merit, with the poet’s name usually shown as an acrostic formed from the initial letter of each verse. On Sabbaths and festivals shbahoth are sung unaccompanied.
Their vast repertoire includes the songs outlined below.
Deror Yiqra (Proclaim Freedom) Dunash Ibn Labrath (c.925–c.990) (hijaaz) The hymn calls for rest from work on the Sabbath, for beauty in places of worship, for the subjugation of our adversaries, that the wilderness should be verdant, and the search for wisdom: the crown of one’s endeavours. This text, which is popular in many Jewish traditions, is sung to a number of tunes in the Babylonian tradition. The melody sung today is known as ‘Andalus’, associated with the repertoire of pre-exilic Spanish Jewry. It may be sung to a number of different religious poetic texts.
Ki Eshmerah Shabbath (Because I Keep the Sabbath) Abraham Ibn ‘Ezra (c.1089–1164) (nahawand) ‘Because I keep the Sabbath, the Lord will keep me. It is forbidden to talk about worldly matters or of business on the Sabbath day, a day of delight: enjoy bread, good wine, meat and fish on this day of rejoicing.’ A number of melodies are associated with this text. The melody we perform is associated with the Festival of Tabernacles (sukkoth). The hymn may also be sung to the melody of the following song.
Balini-b Balwa (He’s a plague on me!) Iraqi folk song (hijaaz) A song in Arabic, but we start and end with the Hebrew refrain of Ki Eshmerah Shabbath (above). This song has a number of stock verses found in many other Iraqi songs. It is a love song, even though the singer considers her/his lover to be a ‘plague’: ‘How can I sleep at night, thinking of you? Even the fish in the sea weep at my sorrowful state.’
Yom Ha-Shabbath (The Sabbath Day) Mansur (’ajam) Perhaps the best loved shbah for the Sabbath, the hymn praises this day of rest: ‘The Sabbath day, there is none like it [refr:] The Lord blessed and sanctified it. All the week, my heart longs for the Sabbath, rejoice and be glad, and sing praise to the Lord on high, who commanded us to celebrate the Sabbath.’
Eloh-ei ’Oz Tehillathi (Lord of strength, my praise!) Eliyaqim (’ajam) A hymn praising God, and sung by a person who is very ill: ‘heal me and I shall be healed; send a cure to my illness, lest I die and reach the end of my days.’
Yahh Ribbón ’Alam (Lord, Master of the Universe) Yisrael Najara (c.1550–c.1620) (chahargah) This text, in Aramaic, is widely known throughout the Jewish world. It may be sung at any time, but is often sung on the Sabbath. ‘Lord, You are King of Kings, Your deeds are mighty and wonderful, let Your teachings be pleasant before us.’
Ya Nabi (Oh Prophet) (chahargah) This Judeo-Arabic text was sung traditionally on pilgrimages, during shabu’oth (Pentecost), to the tomb of Ezekiel the Prophet, in Hilla, Iraq. It may be sung on visits to sacred tombs in general, and at weddings. ‘Oh Prophet, guard my absent ones, we will light a candle for you. The bridegroom is with us, may we meet at his home for the circumcision feast. Women ululate, and men clap your hands for the prophet.’
El Eliyahu (Lord of Elijah) Abraham (bayaat) A song to the Prophet Elijah, for the end of the Sabbath (mosa-ei shabbath). It is believed that Elijah the Prophet visits at the end of the Sabbath. A favourite song in the Baghdad tradition, it has a sedate yet festive feel and is sometime punctuated by ‘kilililili’s: ululations.
Eliyahu Eliyahu (Elijah, Elijah!) Abraham Hazaq (bayaat) Another hymn marking the end of the Sabbath. This song is in the Mosul Jewish tradition. ‘Elijah, Elijah, happy is the eye that sees him. May the gates of love, success, blessing and mercy open, for the merit of Elijah.’
Emeth Ata Hathanenu (You are the True Bridegroom) Abiathar (Nahawand) ‘You are as bright as the moon, as a king in our midst, the Lord will bless you. Rejoice in your bride, become prosperous; your children will be counted among Israel, your wisdom will be that of Gabriel’s, we pray for your good and for our good fortune; be strong in your marriage and rejoice with your bride and the Lord will guide us all.’
Simeni Rosh ’Al Kol Oybai (Place Me Above All My Foes) Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (c.1021–c.1056) (Nahawand) A hymn for the Festival of Purim. ‘As in the days of Mordekhai, have mercy on me. Wipe out our adversaries utterly. You clothed Esther in majesty and rescued me. Haman thought to destroy me, to annihilate me; the Lord helped me.’
Sinai Sinai Ayyeh Mosheh (Sinai, Sinai, where is Moses?) Alphabetic (bayaat) A well-loved song for the Rejoicing of the Law (simhath torah) call and response between the leader and congregation: ‘Sinai, Sinai, where is Moses?’ ‘Moses, Moses, where is Sinai?’ The verses, based on an alphabetic acrostic, enumerate the qualities of Moses that were revealed on Mount Sinai: ahub (the loved one), barukh (the blessed one), gibbor (the mighty one). The song is performed to the favourite Iraqi igrug rhythm (5+5).
Yom Simhah (A day of rejoicing) Alphabetic (sega) Another festive song for simhath torah, with the refrain: ‘A day of rejoicing for Israel.’ Again, a call and response song, where an alphabetic acrostic governs the text of the verses: ahubim (beloved ones), berukhim (blessed ones), gedolim (mighty ones). Each quality, sung by the soloist, is answered by the shout ‘Yisrael!’ The version we sing is based on a recording made in 1934 by a young Zaki Solomon (later to become Hazzan of the Maghen David Synagogue), in Bombay: appended to the end of the song are words in Hindi—paisawala (rich men), taqadwala (strong men), bhai lok (brothers), and English, illustrating the many influences at work in the satellite community of Baghdad Jews in Bombay.