The legend of the Queen of Sheba’s meeting with King Solomon in Jerusalem appears in the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran, Ethiopian literature and Yoruba tradition. The meeting of African and Hebrew sovereigns inspired composers such as George Handel, Charles Gounod and Ottorino Respighi. He was the subject of films like King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (starring Yul Brynner and, improbably, Gina Lollobrigida) and a 1995 TV movie starring Jimmy Smits and Halle Berry. There have been too many paintings, books and scholarly works about the event – which is more in the realm of myth than historical fact – to list. The story of Solomon and Sheba went through various elaborations as it passed from the Jews to the Arabs in Abyssinia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the best-known Hebrew version, the queen came from a land far from Jerusalem, possibly territory in Ethiopia and Yemen. However, the historical identity of the queen is an enigma, and the location of the Sheba (or Sheba) mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures is uncertain.
Queen of Saba, a seven-part suite composed by Lebanese-French trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and sung by Angélique Kidjo, the Benin-born, now Brooklyn-based African diva, reimagines the legend of Solomon and Saba as an encounter between Africa and white , Judeo-Christian world. The queen is known in Hebrew as Malkaṯ Šəḇāʾ, but Kidjo uses her Ethiopian and Arabic names, Makeda and Balkis. In most artistic depictions, the queen is depicted as dark-skinned, from the description in the “Song of Songs”: “I am black and comely.” This is how she describes herself in the lyrics of Kidjo, which are in the Yoruba language, and not in the singer’s native fon.
In Hebrew legend, the queen (who is not named) travels to Jerusalem to meet Solomon after hearing stories of his wealth and wisdom. More intrigued by his reputation for wisdom than by his riches, she asks him subtle and difficult questions. She is amazed by his answers; according to the Old Testament, she says to Solomon: “Your wisdom and your prosperity go far beyond the report I had of them. Happy your wives, happy your courtiers who serve you every day and listen to your wisdom! After exchanging gifts with the king, the Queen of Sheba leaves Jerusalem and returns to her homeland.
Kidjo’s reimagining of the legend turns Makeda’s questions into challenges. In the first part of the suite, “Ahan” (The Tongue), the queen of Kidjo, singing confidently against an insistent ostinato, calls Solomon “the mightiest of white men” and wonders: “But where does this power ? »
No, it’s not the blows, it’s not the chains
No, it’s not the guns, it’s not the chains
Nor the cannons that are armed
It’s all just with your words
Your pretty words, your poetry.
Solomon is the ancestor of “all the generations that came from the West” with pretty words and poetry. “By waving a Bible” they “will now subjugate what is mine”. “Oh, the most powerful white men / They will justify their crimes in the name of mercy.” But Makeda also has the power of words, which she exercises over Solomon and over men. Although “everything separates us now” because of conquest and enslavement, the queen still wants to “believe in the ultimate redemption”.
The following six sections of Queen of Saba present the relationship between the two leaders as a mixture of attraction and repulsion, patriarchal oppression and feminine resistance. Makeda/Balkis poses riddles to Solomon, allies with him, mocks the vanity and arrogance of a king “who thinks the world owes him everything” and acknowledges her love for him. Redemption comes through the myth that Solomon and the queen had a son, Menilek, who founded Ethiopia’s Solomonic royal dynasty, which ended in 1974 with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie I. “Menelik is the symbol of our intertwined hands / Menelik Like the intertwining of our cultures / Menelik / Métis child who one day will sing of a New World. And yet, being the “Queen of the South” didn’t stop her life “from being an eternal battle / For, if I was born a princess / I was born a woman above all”.
Maalouf and Kidjo designed Queen of Saba when they first met in New York in 2018. They recorded the sequel after performing it at concert halls and festivals across the US and Europe, and the preparation paid off in wonder. Queen of Saba blends the musical cultures of its creators with grace, beauty and grandeur. Maalouf composed and arranged the music, which he and Kidjo perform with a small band (guitar, bass, drums, electric piano) and a full orchestra. Born in Lebanon and raised in Paris, Maalouf gained international fame with an original and distinctive style based on European classical music, jazz and the Arabic tradition of maqam. His quarter-tone trumpet allows him to play the notes between the notes (half-sharps and half-flats) characteristic of Arabic melodies (makamat) which cannot be played on standard trumpets. It can not only strike notes outside of the well-tempered western tuning; with its high-pitched melodies, rapid bursts and soaring cadences, it reaches thrilling heights of expression.
Kidjo, a leading exponent of contemporary West African music since the early 1990s, grew up listening to a wide range of genres. Her style, which she describes as unclassifiable, draws from traditional Beninese folk music, Congolese rumba, Cameroonian makossa, soul, jazz and funk. She has a robust and flexible voice with a clear tone and deploys it superbly throughout Queen of Sheba. On “Omidje” (Tears), Kidjo makes full use of his instrument, taking bird’s eye flight in his soprano range and dipping low in his alto. She is a commanding queen.
There are important differences between West African and Arabic music, especially rhythmic. Arabic music is not polyrhythmic; its rhythms are organized around cycles of beats and pauses. In Arabic music, each instrument adorns the melody or melodies rather than a fusion of different rhythms and tones formed by polyrhythm and harmony. Maalouf’s songwriting and arrangement on Queen of Sheba skillfully bridges Africa and the Middle East, with a bit of orchestral pop and rock in the mix. The fusion of cultures and styles is organic, balanced and deeply captivating.