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Music: Ur's Answer to Elvis Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Eric A. Powell

[image] Finnish songster Jukka Ammondt's head on a statue of Gudea, governor of the Sumerian city of Lagash ca. 2180 B.C. (Courtesy Stop Records) [LARGER IMAGE]

Jukka Ammondt, a professor of European Romantic literature at Finland's Jyväskylä University, has made a name for himself recording rock and tango albums in Latin. (In case you missed them, they are: Rocking in Latin, The Legend Lives Forever in Latin, and Tango Triste Finnicum.) Of late, the eccentric Finn, best known for his Roman Elvis riffs, has sought out new founts of inspiration. He's found them in Ur, ca. 4000 B.C.

Billed as the first album ever produced in Sumerian, Ammondt's newest effort is Three Songs In Sumerian, a collaboration with respected cuneiformist Simo Parpola of Helsinki University. Featuring the Elvis hit "E-sír kusv-za-gìn-g-á" ("Blue Suede Shoes"), Three Songs In Sumerian is a bizarre but oddly compelling collection that should be required listening for anyone with an interest in Mesopotamia.

Ammondt's gravelly bass (set to tracks of ultra-hip disco music) won't be easy on everyone's ears. But even those ancient-world buffs most opposed to modern trends in music should succumb to the hypnotic power of Ammondt's Finnish-accented Sumerian.

Once the novelty of hearing Sumerian wears off, the real fun is reading the lyrics and their English translations. Since neither blue suede, nor shoes as we know them existed in Mesopotamia, the Carl Perkins classic is rendered into Sumerian as "Sandals of Sky-Blue Leather" (as in "On my sandals of sky-blue leather do not step!"). Besides "Blue Suede Shoes," Ammondt has set verses of the epic Sumerian poem "Gilgamesh" to music, along with a Sumerian translation of the venerable Finnish folk song "Land of Dreams."

Linguists still have no idea what language group Sumerian belonged to, but quite a bit is known about the ancient script thanks to cuneiform tablets that translate Sumerian into better understood languages like Akkadian. Eleanor Robson, a cuneiformist at Oxford's Oriental Institute, says that although "we have no idea how the lyrics should be pronounced," Parpola's translations are a thoroughly respectable scholarly effort. She also reports that Ammondt puts on a pretty good live show. Apparently, he wears a leather kilt, "rather glitzy blue sandals," and is backed up by musicians dressed as Sumerian governors.

No word yet on whether Ammondt plans to do Vegas.

* "Three Sumerian Songs" is available through www.drammondt.com.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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