THE ALLEGORY OF DESIRE at the Sacred Songs Festival, Den Haag

I tend to approach Arabic music with slight trepidation. I am more familiar with the general tone and spirit of the Arabic poetry in translation. I don’t speak any Arabic languages, so songs, apparently plaintive and full of longing, may well not be sad tales at all.

In this concert the Belgian ensemble Zefiro Torna, the Vocalconsort Berlin and the powerful Tunisian-born singer Ghalia Benali came together for seventeen works inspired by The Song of Songs, one of the books in the Old Testament.

The cerebral music by Hildegard von Bingen, Dunstable, Buxtehude and Monteverdi and 8th century Sufi Saint and mystic Rabi’a al Adaiyya (Rabia al Basra) among others, were accompanied by lute, cello, flutes and percussion from Zefiro Torna. This was interspersed by Ghalia Benali singing a variety of songs in Arabic, using two feathers to underline her words. In one of the songs, she joined the high sopranos and tenors with her earthy, deep tones. It worked wonderfully.

The contrast between the ethereal, pious sounds in the tradition of European church songs and the highly charged Arabic sounds, was perfect – the fine sopranos and tenors circled under the vaulted ceiling of the Nieuwe Kerk – Benali’s voice on the other hand seemed to emanate from somewhere deep in the centre of the earth. She is an immensely charismatic performer who infused even the modest tune, Dama da’iman, with charm as she prowled the stage like a lioness in a seductive dance.

Astrid Burchardt, 23rd November2018

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