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Go Behind the Music with the Director of the Sacred Music Festival

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This article is featured in the August edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers thought-provoking takes on Jewish ideas and stories. 

Listening to Itay Mautner rhapsodize about the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, six days of nearly non-stop performances by musicians from all over the world, is enough to make you hightail it to Jerusalem, where the festival kicks off on August 30. Part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, the Sacred Music Festival started three years ago under Mautner’s guidance and has since grown by leaps and bounds.

That first year, “it was a 24-hour marathon music festival at the Tower of David,” he says on the phone from Jerusalem. The idea of “sacred music” was, to Mautner and his team, amorphous, fluid and a constant target of inquiry.  

“When you hear the term ‘sacred music,’ various pictures pop up—most of them have to do with religion, especially when you attach the word Jerusalem to it. But none of us is wearing any kind of religious or Orthodox hat. There was a contradiction in terms right from the beginning,” he continues. “We were looking to broaden what the understanding of sacred music is.”

It’s an ongoing investigation. But here’s what it is decidedly not—or not restricted to, anyway: Jewish liturgical songs (piyutim), Gregorian chants or Shomyo.

Instead, the brains behind the Sacred Music Festival seek to bring together artists who come with open hearts and minds:

Some 200 musicians, nearly half of whom come from overseas, will play reggae, flamenco, the blues and more on stages in and around the majestic Old City. There’s the MacArthur Genius-Award winning blues guitarist Corey Harris. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is teaming up with Shye Ben Tzur to make music that combines rock and roll with Indian qawwali. From the Western Sahara, Aziza Brahim will offer her Cuban and Spanish-inflected songs of protest. Shuli Rand, a formerly secular artist who became Orthodox, will sing the songs of Meir Ariel, an Israeli musician considered the country’s Bob Dylan.

Mautner explains his approach to selecting performers by way of personal anecdote: Raised in a thoroughly secular Israeli home, he went as a child with his parents to live in New York City for a few years, where he was enrolled in a yeshiva. The young Mautner had no idea how to pray—a big problem at a yeshiva, where prayer is an essential part of the day. He soon learned the right motions. But then, his report card arrived.

“Itay does pray, but without kavannah (intentionality),” he laughs, recalling the critique. “When we talk about sacred music in Jerusalem, we talk about kavannah, about the energy and intention. We don’t need to have piyutim there, but we do need people from all over the world, of all tastes, all different religions, believers and non-believers, but they all share the same intention—of an open heart. It maybe has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with human values. It doesn’t have to do with someone keeping Shabbat or not keeping Shabbat. It’s not about the rules—it’s about the most basic understanding of what belief is, this unity, this oneness that we all share.”

What sets this festival apart from similar events is its location: Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Abrahamic faiths. It’s here, Mautner says, that violence is committed nearly daily in the name of religion, a force that ideally would bring people together. Besides emotional and religious barriers, there are physical ones. The ultra-Orthodox self-segregate in neighborhoods like Mea Shearim; Arabs, for the most part, live in East Jerusalem, apart from the city’s Jewish residents.

“What the Festival tries to do is create a new environment, or a new reality, in Jerusalem. In these few days, under our skies things look and feel different,” he says. Nevertheless, there are obstacles to ensuring a diverse audience: Not all events are free, and ticket prices may be too costly for some would-be attendees. Ultra-Orthodox men can’t attend because of prohibitions against hearing women sing, and ultra-Orthodox women can’t be in mixed company. Palestinians might have trouble getting into West Jerusalem in time to hear performances.

To Mautner, though, this rocky landscape adds to this festival’s singularity. “To have this kind of event in Tel Aviv or Paris or New York—it’s easy. When you do it in a city that is divided, where religions fight each other, then you’re providing a different way of looking at the city, at ourselves, at religion, at everything. Our festival is an open call for everybody to be a part of it and to celebrate who they are and what they are.”

There will still be an all-night performance—hearkening back to the first Sacred Music Festival a few years back—and an opening ceremony that invites the audience to join together in song, as peoples have done for thousands of years.

Mautner says the artists that appear at the Sacred Music Festival are on creative journeys. Even if their songs are bluesy laments of suffering, the music they make is sacred because “fighting for your rights is sacred,” he says. “Sacred does not mean everything is beautiful and great and everybody’s happy and everybody’s hugging. That is not a picture we could ever portray in the world and in Jerusalem.” 

He returns to the notion of intentionality and location. Jerusalem, he says proudly, “is the Mecca of kavannah.”