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Music from the Time of Jesus

<i>Ancient Echoes</i>, by SAVAE
Ancient Echoes, by SAVAE

Listening to the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble is a learning experience. Literally. SAVAE doesn't simply play and sing music; members study the origins of the works they perform. Ethno-musicology is as important as melody and harmony to the group, which formed in 1989, and their recordings of the early music of Latin America are bestsellers.

On a new CD, Ancient Echoes, SAVAE has once again turned to history for inspiration, this time in the ancient music of the Middle East. The recording is a collection of tunes, songs and prayers that date from the time of Jesus and Jerusalem's Second Temple, when Jews were returning to the holy city from exile in Babylon.

Before recording Ancient Echoes, SAVAE founder Covita Moroney and her husband, artistic director Christopher Moroney, spent a year and a half learning Aramaic, a language spoken in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. They also studied the proper pronunciations of ancient dialects of Hebrew and Arabic.

"Each one of those syllables was very deliberately worked upon," Covita Moroney says in an interview with NPR's Liane Hansen.

The prayers and lyrics on Ancient Echoes draw on a variety of sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Torah, the New Testament and an engraving on a Greek gravestone dating from the first century. The Moroneys based most of the musical compositions on the work of Jewish musicologist Abraham Idelsohn. Living and working in Jerusalem early in the 20th century, Idelsohn studied the music and stories of the early Jews returning from exile. He then compared their songs and tales with those of Jews moving back to Palestine in the early 1900s.

"What he found were startling similarities between all of these songs, especially ones that were written to sacred texts from the Hebrew bible," Christopher Moroney says.

"In some cases, for instance, Jews from Spain and Jews from Babylon would have essentially the same music to the same text, although they had been out of connection and communication with one another for nearly two millennia. This pointed to an origin for this music that goes back to the first century and before."

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Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
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