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Estonian Musicians Pay Medieval Tribute to Black Sabbath - 2003-01-02

The music group Black Sabbath is famous, or infamous, for such antics as biting off the heads of bats on stage. It also released some of the most hard-hitting songs of the 1970s and 1980s as pioneers of what is known as heavy-metal rock and roll.

The popular music spawned several cover recordings, performances by other groups of Black Sabbath songs. But in the Baltic country of Estonia, a group has put together a cover album of Black Sabbath music that does not sound like Black Sabbath at all.

The original Black Sabbath is a group that practically invented the term head-banging to describe the almost-violent way fans rock their heads around to the music. Bruises and bloody noses are not uncommon at concerts.

But, there is also another Black Sabbath. But listeners to this version would be hard pressed to sway their hips back and forth, let alone launch into full blown head-banging. It is music that conjures up images of monks in cassocks singing in a cathedral.

The 'other' version of Black Sabbath is the brainchild of Mihkel Raud, an Estonian record producer. He explains the concept.

"It is the Black Sabbath material, Black Sabbath songs, every note by note, it is Black Sabbath, just it is performed on medieval instruments and sung the way people sang back in the 14th century, and in Latin," he said.

A while back, Mr. Raud came up with the idea of doing a very different kind of tribute album to Black Sabbath, a band he started to love at a quite young age.

"I have been a dedicated Black Sabbath maniac for years," Mr. Raud said. "I think when the Paranoid album came out I was like one year old. I was like seven or eight years old when I first listened to Black Sabbath. I was blown away completely."

In the late 1970s when Mr. Raud first heard Black Sabbath, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. Rock music, which Communist leaders dismissed as a product of the corrupt capitalist West, was strictly forbidden. But true fans smuggled in albums and made copies for all their friends, which is how Mr. Raud first heard Black Sabbath's music.

Many musicians who cover songs try to modernize the music, maybe adding rap to traditional rock-n-roll. But Mr. Raud wanted to see if Black Sabbath songs could survive the journey back in time, way back in time.

He wanted to find musicians who could perform medieval music.

"I had to ask my friends to see if there was a band that could turn this crazy idea of mine into a reality," he said. "And all of them said Yes, Rondellus, that is the band you should approach. So I explained what I had in mind and they were sold instantly on the idea."

Instantly might not be the right word.

"Well at first we thought that he was a little bit crazy," said Robert Staack, who along with his wife Maria, make up the group Rondellus that performs medieval music. They, and musicians they hired, performed the medieval versions of Black Sabbath songs. Mr. Staack said he did not take to the idea right away.

"We needed some time to get used to it and to get used to the idea before we could say yes to him, but at last we did say yes to him," he said.

The rest of the participants in the project were not head-bangers or heavy-metal music fans either. The woman Mr. Raud found to translate the songs into Latin, Kristiina Leinemann, had never listened to rock music before, let alone heavy metal.

She was faced with the daunting task of translating lyrics like "generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses" into "centuriones convenerunt sicut magi sacris nigris."

"Sometimes it was difficult for me to understand perhaps the right meaning of the songs, I asked Mihkel, [and] so the translation is born," Ms. Leinemann said. "The songs are not always very clear, sometimes they are a bit, perhaps, ambiguous."

In other cases, the lyrics were anything but ambiguous. Some of Black Sabbath songs talk about Satan or Lucifer. But Mr. Raud said Rondellus usually sings religious songs and because of that he did not ask them to perform songs with dark or satanic references.

It took about nine months to translate the lyrics and arrange the composition. But the actual recording took only four days. The album was released in February and was called Sabbatum, Latin for Sabbath.

Sabbatum has sold a little more than 3,000 albums. This would not be a lot in most countries, but Mr. Raud says it is not too bad for a record produced in a tiny country like Estonia, where 10,000 sales makes a mega-hit.

The album is being sold mainly on the Internet, but later this month it will go on sale in stores in the United States. As for feedback, Mr. Raud says he received an e-mail from Bill Ward, the original drummer for Black Sabbath, who said he loved the album.

Mr. Raud is also contemplating another project in the future. Medieval Madonna anyone?