Tony Cummings reports on the modern day psalmists SONS OF KORAH
One of the most intriguing and original musical aggregations to visit Britain in recent times are the Sons Of Korah. This Australian collective have homed in on the Bible's book of Psalms and set about composing modern melodies to these ancient Hebrew song lyrics. One of the founder members of Sons Of Korah is Matthew Jacoby who co-writes much of the music and sings lead vocals. Matthew has a doctorate in philosophy/theology from the University of Melbourne and regularly teaches on the spirituality of the Psalms, including concise commentaries on the settings of the Psalms woven into most Sons Of Korah concert performances. He admitted that putting new music to the Psalms was far from a unique idea.
Matthew told broadcaster Mike Rimmer, "There is a long tradition to writing music to the Psalms. It's not done so much nowadays, but I think the existence of that tradition is a testimony to the importance of having the Psalms in musical form and I just think it's really important. Not only do the Psalms come alive when you put them to music, but I think they actually start to do what they were meant to do, which is to impart the real heart of the faith. Terms like 'heart for God' and 'love for God' and the 'heart that seeks after God' are all portrayed so dynamically and drastically in the Psalms, and it's there to be imparted to us and to enable us to participate in what is happening in the Psalms. All of life is there. Sometimes there are things that you feel that you don't know how to express, or you think maybe I shouldn't give expression to this, but there is always a Psalm which will just grab hold of that feeling, draw it out and give it definition. That's what the Psalms do. I think that they are so important to the day to day experience of the spiritual life, which is why I think having them in musical form is so important. Music is obviously easy to memorize, and you get a song stuck in your head. I think the Psalms have such an important day to day life application and the Sons Of Korah can play a part in this."
As well as Jacoby, another founding member of the band is Rod Gear. He plays the five-string double bass, mandolin, piano, piano-accordion and guitar. Rod has also released two instrumental albums in his own right. The other members of Sons Of Korah are drummer and percussionist Rod Wilson who has clocked up decades of performance and recording session experience; Mike Avery who plays acoustic fretless bass and keys and who has recently produced an album, 'Romans: The Unofficial Soundtrack', by keyboard man Alexander Scourby, and Mike McCarthy, a "semi-permanent guest artist" with Sons Of Korah and who had made five solo albums of his own and who provides background vocals and plays resonator, mandolin and guitar.
The name Sons Of Korah comes from a group of Old Testament Levitical musicians to whom at least 13 of the Psalms are attributed. The original Sons Of Korah were responsible for the ministry of music and song in the Old Testament worship and particularly with the musical composition and performance of the Psalms.
Australia's Sons Of Korah began in 1995 and within a year had recorded an album "on a small scale". (In fact in 2001 the group released an EP, 'Hand To The Plough' featuring re-recordings of five of the songs from their original release - Psalms 45, 23 and 144 and two original songs "Holy Holy" and "Hand To The Plough".) 'Light Of Life', released in May 1999, was the Sons Of Korah's first commercially distributed full length album. It was described as "a raw and vibrant sound and features a dynamic and emotionally charged collection of Psalms" and included Psalms 56, 116, 93, 15, 103, 6, 59 and a ballad called "It's Over Now".
It was 'Redemption Songs', released in November 2000, which proved to be the most popular of the Sons Of Korah recordings to date. It featured a wide range of different styles and moods all with the emotive Sons Of Korah acoustic sound and included Psalms 137, 63, 117, 121, 24, 32, 148, 130, 40 and 126.
In 2002 'Shelter' was released, described as being "a reflective and mostly mellow recording. As a recording it has a great deal of depth and contains some of the sweetest moments captured by the band." It included Psalms 35, 1, 37 (in two parts), 127, 30, 73, 123, 128 and 51.
'Resurrection', issued in March 2005, featured a wide range of instrumentation including resonator, mandolin, glissentar, piano accordion, cello and flamenco guitar. It included Psalms 125, 69, 95, 52, 67, 147b, 131, 80, 17, 65 and two instrumental tracks.
The group's most recent CD is 'Rain', issued in August 2008 and includes Psalms 99, 139, 42, a section of 103, 12, 3, 114, 84 and the second half of Psalm 116. One of the many memorable melodies on 'Rain' is Psalm 99. matt spoke about the group's interpretation of that Psalm. "This is one that actually has a chorus; 'Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool, Holy is he' that is a sort of chorus in the actual Psalm. I started with that and then I sing a verse and then we go back to the chorus and so forth. It's a lovely little worship song."
One of the problems in setting the Psalms to music is that, because of the translation from Hebrew to English they don't scan, as Matt admitted. "No, they don't scan so that is certainly a challenge. We use a little bit of artistic licence, but we try to leave them as much as possible. The Psalm 'Still With You' is hardly changed at all. They are almost straight out of the NIV. Normally we have to change it a little bit more to get it to flow with the music, but not much; we usually try and preserve the Psalm. The translations that are easier to work with are the ones that preserve a bit of poetic rhythm, and I think the NIV has done that really well with the Psalms. The NIV has actually been the easiest translation to work with, and it also happens to be the most widely used translation, so those two things together draw us mostly to that translation."
Matthew is very aware that the lyrical scope of the Psalms goes much further than what we're accustomed to in our modern worship songs. "The Psalms are the biblical book of worship and the book that should set the agenda, at least for the dynamics for our worship and our spiritual experience. It says in Psalm 126, 'Those who sew in tears will reap with songs of joy'. We have so much to worship and so much to rejoice in, we rejoice in the glory, we rejoice that we are saved. But we also need to lament. We lament that people are still lost, we lament the pain in the world. I believe that there are so many things that God calls us to lament about - I think the Psalms show us how to do that. The Psalms show up some of the areas where we have possibly become a little shallow. There are obviously some very difficult expressions in the Psalms, but there are some beautiful cries, Psalm 130, 'From the depths I cry to you, Lord hear my voice', and Psalm 61, 'Lord hear my cry, from the ends of the earth I cry to you', just beautiful heartfelt cries that express how we often feel. I think these are important things to express, because it is part of the spiritual life. There is some great stuff coming out of contemporary worship movements and I think in different areas, people are starting to look at the Psalms, even the lament Psalms, and I think that's a great thing. I'd love to see more of those, particularly the repental Psalms, the Psalms that say, 'Have mercy on me God', Psalm 51, sort of a cry for mercy. I think there are musicians beginning to look at those again. But I would like to see more of that."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.