It's not often that we think of popular music and the Old Testament in the same breath. Heck even the majority of today's gospel music looks to the New Testament for its inspiration. However, when you consider the source of the new release Song Of Songs on the Electrofone Records label, the Old Testament connection makes a lot of sense. Inbar Bakal was born in Israel and is a descendant of Yemenite Jews whose traditions have long included putting their belief to music.
Like all young Israelites Bakal did her years of national service, as part of an anti-aircraft battalion, before embarking on the career of her choice. While that choice was always destined to be music, (her grandfather, a famous kabbalist thought by some to be able to predict the future, told her when she was sixteen that she had a big star in the sky that said she was going to be a singer) it was only after she gave up a career in the armed forces and moved to Los Angeles that it came to fruition. It was the same grandfather who inspired Bakal's version of the traditional psalm that is her release's title track, Song Of Songs. For while many consider the sensuality of that particular psalm to be an allegory for the love between man and God, her grandfather believed it was about love from a woman, because it is truly divine.
That should give you a clue to the fact that although this disc might look to the Old Testament and traditional Jewish music and culture for its inspiration, its not what you would call religious music. Bakal is very careful to enunciate that while she takes great pride in her Yemenite heritage and has a very traditional sense of her culture, she is not especially religious. Nor, at least judging by her approach to the music on Song Of Songs, is she so wedded to her traditions that she's unwilling to tamper and experiment with the music using the technology available today.
While listening to the disc you'll also notice she's done a little more than just add a few technical advances. She's put together a band that's comfortable with the instruments and musical styles of a great many different cultures through-out the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This means that intermingled with the sound of instruments like the oud which is native to the region, you'll also hear the strains of a bouzouki and piano mixed in. Of course the most obvious additions are those that were added in the production room: electronic sounds and rhythms.
There has been a noticeable trend among younger international musicians towards modernizing the sound of their parent's and grandparent's music with decidedly mixed results. While some have been able to strike a delicate balance between the old and the new, others have shown themselves to be far to eager to discard what it was that made their music special in the first place. Thankfully that's not the case with Inbar Bakal as she and her producer Carmen Rizzo have demonstrated they share an awareness of just how far they can push a song in that direction before it loses the distinctiveness that gave it character in the first place.
While Bakal sings in a mixture of Hebrew and English, the lyrics of her songs are another way in which she brings the material into the modern world. The song "The Bride" is a great example of this as its actually two songs in one that deals with the difficult subject of an arranged marriage. In the first song we are given the bride's perspective. She begs her family not to marry her off to this man whom she abhors and their answer is a resounding no. The "second" part of the song deals with the wedding itself and serves as a contrast to the bride's misgivings and reluctance.
What I appreciated most about Song Of Songs was the ability that Bakal and her producer showed in finding the balance between the modern and the new and the traditional and the innovative. Neither the use of instruments from the other cultures nor the manner in which they used production values interfered with the inherent beauty of the original music. You can not only feel the power and the passion of music that's been handed down from generation to generation, but Bakal's love and respect for what she's doing as well.
Listen to the title track, "Song Of Songs", and you'll hear just how well she's able to blend the modern and the traditional. She has taken the words of the psalm and turned them into not only a wonderful love song, but a song that also celebrates the wonders of love. You can hear within the litany of praises for the lover's attributes her belief in what her grandfather called the divinity of love between people. Instead of the usual sentimental tripe normally heard in contemporary love songs, she has created a piece of music celebrating the awe and wonder that such feelings can exist between two people. After listening to "Song Of Songs", you can't help believing those emotions are so rarified they have to be a gift from some higher power or another.
Of course it doesn't really matter what the music is like if the person at the centre of the band can't deliver the goods. Thankfully Inbar Bakal delivers on the promise her grandfather predicted. Not only can she write wonderful songs, she has the vocal abilities to bring them to life. The two most obvious are her range and the amount of expression she's able to project no matter where on the scale she is singing. Some singers are able to climb and descend the scales at will, but lose their ability to project emotion at certain points. That's not the case with Bakal, as she is equally capable of letting you know what's being felt by the subject of her material whether she's singing in a low throaty growl or whispering at the upper end of the register.
The only complaint I have to make about Song Of Songs is at six songs it ends far too quickly. In fact this disc is so short it's really more an EP release than a full length disc. Than again, I suppose that's better than having to listen to a full length disc of really bad music, and never wanting to hear a performer again. For, there's one thing for certain, after listening to this disc you're definitely going to want to hear more. This is a collection of wonderfully crafted songs performed with passion and skill by a talented and expressive singer that successfully melds modern technology and ages old traditions.