Revels returns Christmas story to its roots in the Middle East

Soloist Salome Sandoval performs in a scene from this year’s Christmas Revels in Cambridge. Soloist Salome Sandoval performs in a scene from this year’s Christmas Revels in Cambridge.

Microtonal Arabic music rarely makes the Yuletide hit parade, but at this year’s Christmas Revels, the Sharq Ensemble trio, playing the nay and the oud, give unexpected resonance and authenticity to the classic carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

The inclusion of these Middle Eastern master instrumentalists typifies the horizon-widening mission of Revels to preserve and showcase all folk culture traditions, secure in knowing their regulars will applaud the unexpected choice of Arabs for the 41st edition of this winter solstice spectacle.

Sharq founder Karim Nagi notes, “Arabic is an ethnicity; it’s not a religion. Arabs are Christians, Jews, Muslims, even atheists. We do participate in Christmas. In fact, some of the first Christians were from the Arab world.”

Besides Moroccan and Egyptian melodies, audiences hear – and at some points even participate in singing and dancing to – seasonal folk songs in French, Latin, Spanish, Basque, Catalan as well as English Revels favorites like “The Lord of the Dance” and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol.”

Reflecting on this diversity, George Emlen, Revels Music Director, who again supplies engrossing notes for the full color program book, explains, “This year we tell a tale of dark and light, of good and evil, one that’s better served by a musical smorgasbord than by a tightly delineated repertoire. In doing so we note that the idea of ‘crossover artists’ and ‘fusion bands’ in by no means a modern phenomenon.”

The allegorical script is Director Paddy Swanson’s many-mooded reworking of an outline used for the Christmas Revels a decade ago. It’s set in a 16th century coastal village of France where pilgrims flock from all over the Mediterranean for the town’s annual epiphany spectacle. This play-within-a-play is entrusted to three local zanies, played with three distinct comic styles by Timothy Sawyer, Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell. They carefully distinguish “between being a village fool and a village idiot.”

When a sinuous, skeletal figure Boney (Linnea Coffin) steals all the people’s light, these ill-equipped bumblers board the proverbial ship of fools to recover it along with hope for the new year.

Foremost among this year’s special guests (or “tradition-bearers” in Revelspeak) are the aforementioned Sharq Ensemble consisting Nagi from Cairo, Aboud Agha from Aleppo and Boujemaa Razgui from Marrakech.

Nagi salutes the 35-member Chorale Céleste (which includes Savin Hill’s Joanie Carney) for their support.

“The Revels orchestra and chorus had to learn kinds of music they had never encountered before. They do an amazing job. It’s great that Revels let us present Arabic music in an authentic way.”

The “Ship of Fools” Christmas Revels continues at Sanders Theatre in Harvard’s Memorial Hall through December 29. Visit revels.org for video and more print reviews.