Contact: Psalms of RA

"The Psalms of RA" is an acoustic ritual of neo-ancient music recorded at the world famous scoring studios of Skywalker Sound. Skywalker has recorded the soundtracks to countless Hollywood films, as well as many of the greatest musicians of our time. Now, through Skywalker’s support and the collaborative efforts of nearly fifty musicians with diverse ethnic backgrounds, a unique and timely project has been brought to life.

“The Psalms of RA” is a symbolic journey through the passage of a full day. From sunrise to sunset to sunrise again, the recordings move the listener through time, from birth to life to death to rebirth. Most of the texts are either in ancient Egyptian or Aramaic Hebrew, and many are derived from Egyptian Book of Coming Forth into Day, otherwise known as The Book of the Dead. Hebrew texts (on the double CD only) have been referenced from the Biblical Book of Psalms, and from traditional prayers. The newest version of "The Psalms of RA", featuring only the Egyptian related music and accompanied by a 48 page book, has been specially designed for museum shops and those with a particular interest in Egyptology.

“The Psalms of RA” is the brainchild of world musician/composer Jim Berenholtz. Over the past two decades he has made five visits to Egypt, as well as repeated visits to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon. During those journeys he has meditated, chanted, prayed and played flute in the ancient temples along the Nile, in remote desert shrines, in canyons and dunes, along the beaches of the Red Sea and atop the mountains of Sinai. From these hallowed places have come many melodies and songs, composed to the words of ancient texts in the original languages. Unique orchestrations combine Western symphonic instruments with traditional Near Eastern winds, strings and percussion. The result is the feeling of being beneath the brilliant starry sky of a Saharan night, or witnessing the glory of sunrise from the inner sanctum of a temple. Thus listeners are taken on an inner spiritual journey that is both healing and life-affirming.

The revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten, with his mystical philosophy of solar light, is a particularly important poetic source for “The Psalms of RA” project. The story of his role in the making of the CD is fascinating. Akhenaten’s 3,500 year old Hymn to the Sun, although translated in numerous languages as one of the most famous of all ancient Egyptian texts, had never been assembled in a complete transliteration (phonetic pronunciation) prior to this recording. However, after months of searching the composer was finally able to locate the renowned Egyptologist William Murnane. An expert on the Akhenaten/Amarna period, he had already worked out the pronunciations of the Hymn to the Sun text from the original hieroglyphic stone slab. He agreed to compile his notes into a finished document, and also provided a recording of his voice speaking the text to assist with the pronunciations. Two months later, professor Murnane died of a sudden heart attack. Yet in knowing that the centerpiece of his work did not die with him, there is some consolation. Indeed, at the core of “The Psalms of RA” project is the desire to allow ancient, ancestral voices to be heard again.

Significantly, the Hymn to the Sun is not the only work on the CD that was born from death. The composer’s parents died within nine months of each other, and it was shortly after this period that he set the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer, known as the Kaddish, to his own new music. Psalm 116, which speaks of being spiritually uplifted after hitting life’s bottom, was also composed at that time, as was the music for an ancient Sumerian ritual chant from the Epic of Gilgamesh about the goddess of the underworld.

Related to the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun on the recording is the Hebrew Psalm 104. It is an exquisite poetic text celebrating the forces of nature, and is considered by many Biblical scholars to have been inspired by Akhenaten’s earlier hymn. This Hebrew/Egyptian connection is a theme that runs throughout the double CD set. Too often it is the negative side of the relationship between these two cultures that has been emphasized. Yet the Jews lived in ancient Egypt for a thousand years. As civilizations living side by side, there was much creative and spiritual cross-fertilization. Moses, a high initiate of the Egyptian priesthood and schools of magic, is but one example of that cultural interaction. “The Psalms of RA” dares to celebrate this, interweaving Kabbalistic Hebrew incantations with Egyptian ritual mantras, reaching for the very origins of language that can be found in root words and syllables. In Psalm 133 this finds a more contemporary and politically relevant expression by taking the traditional Hebrew folk song which comes from this psalm and performing it in both Hebrew and Arabic. The arrangement was worked out by Near Eastern ethnomusicologist Jihad Racy, composer of the soundtrack for the famous Tutankhamun exhibit that toured North America in 1978. It is performed by him with fellow Lebanese and Palestinian musicians, together with singers of Jewish and Christian background. It is, in no uncertain terms, a call for unity and peace.

Add to this cultural/linguistic mix the texts, songs and sounds of African cultures like the Borana, the music of West Asian cultures like the Persian, and you have “The Psalms of RA”. The world music influences are especially apparent through the use of traditional North African and Middle Eastern instruments like nai flutes, dumbek drums, sistrums, bells, gongs, fanfare trumpets, santur, oud, guitar and harp. These are combined with orchestral woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion, reflecting the classical European musical influences in the project. Members of the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet and Opera Orchestras are among the featured instrumentalists on the CD.

As for the vocal music, it is both solo and choral. Often it aims towards the kind of vocal resonance in recording that occurs naturally when chanting within the stone block walls of the temples. For example, in Pyramid of Light the audio space was precisely designed by recording and mixing engineer Aaron Reiff to simulate the acoustical properties of the King’s Chamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Certainly the musical sources of inspiration for “The Psalms of RA” are eclectic. Still, the resulting music has a distinct and consistent style of its own. It has been conceived as a new kind of music which the composer calls “Neo-Ancient”, bringing contemporary classical and world music together.

Ultimately, “The Psalms of RA” is intended as a creative contribution for peace, particularly in the Middle East. By interweaving the musical and linguistic roots of peoples that have long been held hostage to nationalistic and fundamentalist ideologies, “The Psalms of RA” aims towards a celebration of a shared spiritual heritage that transcends political differences. It has always been the role of the arts to awaken and illuminate, and for artists to take the lead in forging ahead where others dare not tread. Citizen diplomacy is the forerunner of true political change, and music, the universal language, is one of the most effective and wonderful ways that the citizens of the world can reach out to each other.

 

* In 2004 "The Psalms of RA" was nominated as "Best Middle Eastern Album of the Year" by the "Just Plain Folks" Independent Music Awards. Thru May, 2005, the music played in the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the Kunsthalle (National Art Museum) in Bonn, Germany. There it formed the soundtrack of a repeating 22 minute computer animated film entitled "Die GrÃ?ber der Pharaonen" (The Tombs of the Pharoahs). Thru February 2006, "The Psalms of RA" is the soundtrack for the audio tour of the landmark exhibition "Hatshepsut - from Queen to Pharoah" at the new de Young Art Museum in San Francisco.