Journeying back through the annals of Biblical history, Jewish musician Michael Levy’s ancient lyre is a memoir of the prophets of the Old Testament and the Temples of Jerusalem. A rare torchbearer of the musical legacy of his Levite high priest forefathers, Michael unravels a unique tradition little known to the world. Excerpts from an interview.
What are the Biblical significances of the harp and lyre?
The harp was never played during biblical times in Israel. But ‘Kinnor’ and ‘Nevel’ were lyres played by my Levite ancestors in the Temple of Jerusalem.
The portable lyre (which later evolved into the biblical lyre) seems to have been developed by nomadic Canaanites. The very first lyres discovered (the Silver and Golden Lyres of Ur) are almost 5,000 years old.
Was it because of it’s medidative sound that the prophets chose to play them?
The lyre not only perfectly accompanies the human voice, but is also portable and that makes it the perfect instrument to accompany song.
Your Levite ancestors had mastered the Lyre. What was their role in its development?
Very little is known. The ancient musical traditions of the Levites were lost with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Are there still upholders of this ancient tradition in Israel or anywhere else?
The ‘Begena’, a bass register lyre of 10-strings, still played in Ethiopia today, could be a living relic of the 10-string biblical ‘Nevel.’ According to Ethiopian tradition, it was brought there by Menelik I, son of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
What drew you to the lyre? How did you gain access to the authentic styles, the history and the nuances?
Mu sic is the only ancient magic we have left. I taught myself the lyre, by practically discovering, and through a painstaking process of elimination, the possibilities and limitations of the recreated instruments themselves, in addition to studying ancient (even literary) depictions of lyre players.
Do you think that there might have been some sort of connection between the music of ancient Israel and India?
There are some similarities. Regarding a speculative age-old connection between India and Israel, there was an ancient Indian string instrument known as the ‘Kinnari Veena’, its similarity to the Hebrew ‘Kinnor’ lyre is striking!
What is the position of the instrument today?
It is still being played in Africa, where it arrived on ancient trade routes with the ancient Near East.
Has the lyre been incorporated into modern music?
Only in traditional African music. I wish to reintroduce the lyre to the rest of the world.
Who are the people that make up your audience?
It attracts the new-age genre listener who likes the meditative quality. The ancient biblical themed albums would certainly be suitable for devotion.
Do you make/design these instruments?
I do not make instruments myself. My replica of ancient Greek lyres are made by Luthieros in Thessaloniki.
The author, a multi-linguist, is an international music performer and composer