Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday Music: Caoineadh cu Chulainn

A beautiful Lament played by Davey Spillane on the uilleann pipes

From the Ireland/Éire Facebook page:

There's a story behind this lament, as there is behind any Irish lament (or Scottish one for that matter) but this one, I think deserves telling.

Now you have all heard of Cú Chulainn or Setanta, as he was called as a child. How he got the name Cú Chulainn or the "hound of Chulainn " is a different story, as is his battle to the death with his blood brother Ferdia. Now Ferdia was a very old and the closest friend of Cú Chulainn. The met in the land of Alba (Scotland) where was sent to train in the art of war and all the weapons, but that's again a different story.

This lament is about the time when Cú Chulainn killed his own son in battle you see you see when he was in Alba being trained by Scathach A fierce Scottish Warrior of renown he met Scathachs' sister. Both Scathach and Aoife, her sister were masters at warfare and had never been beaten, which is why the best young warriors were sent to train under her guidance. To cut this part of a long story short, Scathach and Aoife were feuding and after a long complicated story Cú Chulainn beat Aoife in battle and forced her to make peace with her sister, He also won her affection and so the inevitable happened and she had a son to him and she named him Conlaoch

Years later and not knowing he had a son, Cú Chulainn married Emer, his childhood sweetheart. When Aoife heard that Cúchulainn had married Emer, she was totally enraged. So she decided to turn her son into a weapon against Cú Chulainn. She trained her son in all aspects of being a warrior. She then sent him over to Ireland but first she put three geasa on him. A "geasa", for those who don't know is an unbreakable promise, your Word of honour, so to speak. Now for any true Irishman or Scottish man for that matter there is no worse fate than to be without honour. It is the single worst fate that can befall you. First of these geasa was that he was not to turn back, the second that he should never refuse a challenge, and the third that he should never tell anyone his name.

When Conlaoch arrived at his father's home in Dundalk, he was met by the warrior Conall, who according to custom asked him his name and lineage. Because of the geas his mother had put on him, Conlaoch could not comply with this request and was immediately challenged to a duel with Conall, which he could not refuse. After many such chalanges and battles, Conlaoch then came against Cúchulainn himself and was asked his lineage, but again could not tell it and so was challenged by Cúchulainn. In the terrible battle that followed the hero light came upon Cú Chulainn and Conlaoch realised that he was fighting his father and that his mother had been treacherous, he cast his spear sideways so that it would miss Cúchulainn and shouted that he was his son, but it was too late Cúchulainn had already thrown the gae bulga (which he had won from Aoife) and it was unstoppable once thrown and thus Conlaoch was slain.

Cúchulainn was thrown into a fit of rage and grief in which he lost his senses and started attacking anything in sight, so in order to save him and his friends from further tragedy, the Druid Cathbad cast a spell upon Cúchulainn causing him to see the waves of the sea as armed opponents. He battled with the waves until he collapsed from exhaustion.

So that being said this lament called "Caoineadh Cu Chulainn" (Cú Chulainns' lament) is about that tragedy.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sacred Spaces: Klezmer Shabbat Service at Temple Emanu-el

I have had it in the back of my mind to do a blog series on sacred spaces. The idea is to visit various places of worship around town and write an essay about the experience at each place. I was invited to attend a special Shabbat service at Temple Emanu-El on Birmingham’s Highland Avenue last Friday, so I have taken that opportunity to begin my Sacred Spaces Series.

Temple Emanue-El is a Reform Jewish congregation founded in 1882. Their mission statement  on their website states : “Temple Emanu-El is a welcoming Reform Jewish congregation, engaging members in prayer, study, fellowship, and acts of loving kindness for our congregational family and the community at-large.”

Last Friday, August 26, 2016, was the world premiere of the Klezmer Shabbat Service, a musical production written by Dr. Alan Goldspiel. Dr. Goldspiel is Chair of the Department of Music at the University of Montevallo and is the music director of the Magic Shtetl Klezmer Band which features Goldspiel on the classical guitar, Pei-Ju Wo on violin, Robert Janssen on clarinet, and Michael Glaser, percussionist.

Klezmer, according to the program notes, is “a musical tradition originating in the shtetls and ghettos of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, where musicians performed at joyful events since the early middle ages.” Klezmer was originally inspired by secular melodies and is often used for weddings and for dancing. Though it can be very soulful, it is not a tradition normally associated with Shabbat, so this was a truly original musical event.

Preparing Ahead

Before going to the Shabbat service, I consulted my trusty volume, How to be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook to familiarize myself with what to expect and how I needed to act. The basic information I got was that since Temple Emanuu-El is a Reform synagogue, I would not be required to wear a yarmulke and that I should stand when everyone stands during the prayers. As for dress, for men, the book said, “a coat and tie are always appropriate.” Since my copy of A Perfect Stranger is 20 years old now, I wondered if this were still the case. I knew that among Protestants and Catholics dress has become considerably more relaxed, and I thought of how an evening at the symphony once always indicated a coat and tie, but now that is usually just business casual.

I decided to forego the tie, since men’s neck ties are becoming rather rare. I wanted to “blend in” but not stand out. I opted for a sport coat, slacks, and dress shirt with open collar. I considered that this event involved prayer and music, both deserving of some respect in my manner of dress. When I arrived, I saw that there was an even mix of business casual and sport jackets/suits among the men, so I felt comfortably “blended in.”

Hearing the Music

As the program began, the instrumental music had a familiar ring. It sounded like music I had heard as background music in movies, and it triggered memories of cinematic scenes in New York City, though I could not think right off hand what specific movies I had heard this genre of music in.  That is to say, the music was lively and accessible. (A quick online search later revealed klezmer influence in the musical scores of such movies as Cabaret, Oliver!Blazing Saddles, Once Upon a Time in America, and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof. 

When it came to movements in which traditional Jewish prayers for the Sabbath were sung by the choir, the music had a full, even oceanic feel at times with other movements given more to gentle reflection. Some of the movements conveyed a sense of proclamation. The music also called for several solo parts by cantor Jessica Roskin, whose voice carried the music with beauty and skill. It was a joy to hear the Magic Shtetl Klezmer Band as well as the cantorial choir of Temple Emanu-El.

Praying the Prayers

Everything was in Hebrew, but page numbers were included in the program, so I was able to follow along in the prayer book. Though the prayers were written Hebrew, there was usually an English translation included which allowed me to get some sense of the prayers being offered. For example, the opening prayer, Hinei Mah Tov can be translated “How good it is, and how pleasant, when we dwell together in unity.”

The next prayer, L’cha Dodi is translated, “Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride; let us welcome the Shabbat. Observe and Remember, the one and only Gd caused us to hear in a single utterance; the L-rd is One and His Name is One, for renown, for glory and for praise.”

And of course there is the Sh’ma (shema) which begins,  Sh'ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad… “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

As one who has spent much time in Protestant and Catholic Churches, there were some similarities to be seen among our differences. The offering of praise to God was similar. Indeed, there is a certain weightiness about hearing these ancient prayers being offered up -- prayers that have been said by the faithful for thousands of years in hundreds of gatherings throughout the world. Other similarities were the prayers for the sick and the remembrances of those who had died. 

All in all, it was a significant evening. I was able to witness something quite new while hearing prayers that are quite ancient, weighty, and sacred. Temple Emanu-El has their services webcast, so you may see the Klezmer Shabbat Service online at .


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday Haiku: Yesterday's Path

when the waves roll in
yesterday’s path is a dream
new footsteps bring hope


Photo by Malcolm Marler

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