in: News & Features

December 18, 2012

A Colloquy on Sephardic Music


Cantigas Duo

Logo of Camerata Mediterranea

A few months ago a review (here) of a performance by an eminent, non-Jewish early music specialist spawned an interesting comment about who should be performing Sephardic music and in what manner. What follows is a lightly edited transcription of a 9000 word roundtable conversation about these issues that took place on November 29th at Boston’s Church of the Advent, as various musicians and scholars talked about the history of Sephardim, Sephardic musics, and issues relating to its performance. Ian Pomerantz, of Voice of the Turtle, questioned whether Jordi Savall had inappropriately adapted Sephardic secular music for his program, and whether he had made inaccurate claims for its authenticity. “As an individual of Sephardic descent, I can testify that Sephardic music is an essential part of a living oral tradition and is closely linked with Sephardic cultural identity. . . . Why invent a ‘historical’ tradition instead of participating in a living one?”

This discussion may also be timely, and relevant because of the Government of Spain’s recent offer of citizenship to Diaspora Jews of Spanish origin whose ancestors had been forced to flee Spain during the Inquisition.

Joel Cohen, Artistic Director of Camerata Mediteranea, and I felt the questions Ian raised warranted a fuller, but hopefully less polemical airing. So Joel invited a distinguished panel consisting of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Joel Bresler, Ian Pomerantz, and Mehmet Sanlikol for a discussion on November 19th at Boston’s Church of the Advent.  Further comments were made from the audience by musicians Beth Cohen and Joseph Benoit Darensbourg.

This panel discussion is a joint presentation of the Boston Musical Intelligencer and Camerata Mediterranea, an intercultural institute of musical exchanges.  Camerata Mediterranea devotes itself to research, dialogue, and pedagogy involving the diverse musical civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.  Incorporated as a nonprofit in France for several years, Camerata Mediterranea is now a U.S. nonprofit corporation as well. This discussion is the institute’s first public activity in North America.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay: I’m the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music at Harvard and also a Professor of African and African American studies. That’s my other life. I am an ethnomusicologist and a scholar of Jewish music, also of Ethiopian music and of a variety of American musics as well.

Joel Bresler: I’ve been collecting Sephardic music since I was in college. Some years ago, I was moved to try and collect every recording I could that had at least one song in Ladino. I then decided to digitize the collection, which amounts to about ten or twelve thousand song recordings so far. And then I mounted a website cleverly named to try and bring some of that research and the sound samples to the public, including research on the 78s, which are very dispersed all throughout the world and very difficult to find and hear. I am not an academic but I have deeply studied the discography of Sephardic recordings over the last hundred years. For me the fascinating question is, how did a minority’s music branch out to the point where it is now sung in virtually every country in the world?

Ian Pomerantz: I am a scholar and performer of Sephardic music, and the newest member of Voice of the Turtle, now a non-profit organization dedicated to the performance, preservation, and transmission of Sephardic oral tradition. I am also of Sephardic background.

Mehmet Sanlikol: I am ethnically originally from Turkey but have been here about 19 years in Boston. I came here as a jazz pianist to Berklee, and over the course of the years have developed a great interest in classical Ottoman Turkish music and culture.

Joel Cohen (file photo)

Joel Cohen (file photo)

Moderator (Joel Cohen): Those are the participants, the official participants and we have some audience here.  I will first of all read the text for this evening which is polemical and then I’m going to announce a series of questions to the panel that we will try to start answering in order. But we’ll probably get derailed in about 30 seconds.

Anyway, here’s the opening text, quote, “There can be no Question as to so and so’s talent, technique and musicality; he is an exceptional performer. His methodology however raises some very serious concerns, most glaringly with his appropriation of Sephardic secular music. The simple truth remains [that] as of yet not a single note of melodic material in Judeo-Spanish secular song can be traced back to the Iberian peninsula. And unfortunately so and so bears much of the responsibility for inventing and propagating this myth which now spans several decades.”

Here’s my parenthesis: It’s a point of historical fact, I don’t think this man invented the myth. It’s been around for awhile, and widely diffused, but he may be one of the brilliant marketers of it.

“As an individual of Sephardic descent,” continues this author, “I can testify that Sephardic music is an essential part of reliving oral tradition and is closely linked with Sephardic cultural identity. Far from being or endangered, Iberian Sephardim and their descendants make up as much as 15 percent of the global Jewish community. Instead of approaching the music from the inside, for instance involving the Sephardic community and becoming involved in a living folk tradition so intimately tied to identity, X appropriates music, dresses it up in all the trappings of classic orientalism and performs the repertoire completely out of context with little or no first hand connection to tradition bearers.” the final question has been asked before by many others besides myself and it is worth repeating: “why invent a historical tradition instead of participating in a living one?”

OK, I’m going to throw out six questions relating to this text, and then maybe take a quick round of opinions about question number one.

Question one: What is Sephardic music? What do we mean by the word Sephardic? That’s a very broad question, as a sub-question, secular music only. Spanish language, Ladino, whatever you call that language will have liturgical or paraliturgical music.

Question number two: Transmission and relative antiquity. Is Sephardic music early music?

Three: Approaches to preservation and performance.

Four: This is my particular interest—relations to Arabic and Turkish music and eventually possibly to Spanish European music. Stylistic analysis and transmission comparison versus legend.

Five: Truth in advertising; medievalism as a marketing ploy.

Six: This maybe the one that goes back most directly to the polemical text I just read you. Who is qualified to perform these repertoires? That is do you have to be Jewish to manufacture Levy’s Rye? I don’t know if you remember the New York subway in the 50s, they had Hindus and American Indians chomping on bread, and a caption that said “you don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Rye?” Are Sephardim, intrinsically more qualified to perform the repertoire than others?

Ok, let’s start with number one; let’s just go around the room. We’ll start with Joel Bresler: what is Sephardic music? We’ll give everyone a chance because I don’t think there’s complete agreement.

Bresler: No, I don’t think there is (complete agreement). And for me, again because I’ve looked at the hundred year sweep of recorded Sephardic music, there was a sea change in the late 1940s to early 1950s. Curt Sachs very famously defined Jewish music mid-century as “music by Jews for Jews as Jews”…

Moderator (Cohen): That shall not perish from the earth…

Bresler: …and if you look at Sephardic recordings in the 78 era, that almost universally held true. You had people like Haim Effendi, you had artists in America, all participating in what was essentially an urban Ottoman music tradition. I’ve looked and looked, and there were very few non-Jews who had Sephardic 78s in their family collections. Whereas the reverse was not true – the Sephardim had plenty of Turkish and Greek and other music in their collection. So the first half of this century, recorded music is by Sephardim for Sephardim as Sephardim with only a handful of exceptions. There were some classical arrangements, but that more or less held true.

And then post World War II that all gets blown up, essentially starting in the 1950s, with Gloria Levy and her LP on Folkways. And then essentially to today (I’ll touch in a second on the Medievalism and where that came in) where I’m hard pressed to define Sephardic music except maybe to say that its music that Sephardim used to sing, because it’s been transformed into so many different ways.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay (file photo)

Kay Kaufman Shelemay (file photo)

Shelemay: When you talk about the people who transmit, perform and sustain the music, you’re really asking who is a Sephardic Jew and that would depend very much who you’re asking. Within the Sephardic community there are those who would define Sephardic rather narrowly to include only those with roots from Spain post 15th/16th century. However I have worked with communities who also viewed themselves as Sephardic and some may have had roots in Spain—but others did not and over the years adopted a Sephardic identity. I think it’s very, very difficult to limit the repertories to only those in Ladino or other Spanish dialects because many Sephardic Jews have adopted and adapted traditions in other languages, most notably in Arabic. In terms of liturgical and paraliturgical music, we’re dealing with people who have music that is part of all aspects of their lives and therefore any of those musics that they perform are part of their repertories. I work primarily with Syrian Jews who count themselves as a Sephardic community. Many of them were originally from the Middle East where they were resident for millennia and Syria. But after the 15th and 16th centuries, Jews from the Sephardic world came to Syria, intermarried with many of the Jews already resident there. As a result, they succeeded in transmitting their Sephardic identity, but in the process adopted a Judeo-Arabic tradition and language. These boundaries were porous and need to be considered as such. Music was notably porous across all repertories because people soaked up sounds form the environments in which they lived and also as they migrated from place to place. So therefore you have all sorts of repertories that reflect many layers of influence. I’d be hard pressed to find or to provide a single definition of Sephardic music.

Ian Pomerantz (file photo)

Ian Pomerantz (file photo)

Pomerantz: Let us get some core vocabulary under our belts. Sephardic Jews, the ethnic group whose music we are gathered to discuss in its strictest sense, refers to the descendants of the Jewish community of the Iberian Peninsula prior to their expulsion in the last decades of the 15th-century and into the 16th-century. In broader terms, “Sephardic” refers to Jews who practice a Sephardic style of liturgy or have adopted Sephardic customs, or Jews who have been assimilated into Sephardic culture whether or not their community has any connection to Iberia. Ladino, Djudezmo, or Judeo-Spanish refers to the many dialects based on Iberian Romance languages spoken within the Sephardic community.

Sephardic music is also often portrayed in musical discourse among performers as an endangered art form from an ancient and disappearing people that needs direct and immediate outside intervention to be saved. This is fortunately not true. The descendants of the Iberian Sephardic diaspora today number around 1.5 million individuals, constituting roughly 15% of the global Jewish population. Sephardic music is a vibrant, living tradition in our communities. Among young Sephardim of my generation, Sephardic music has experienced a major revival, paralleling the earlier Klezmer revival among American Ashkenazi Jews in the second half of the 20th-century. Among these communities, Sephardic music has become interwoven and virtually inseparable from individual and communal Sephardic identity. Sephardic music is an interactive tradition that depends on the participation of the community to flourish, and community music-making is an integral part of Sephardic culture. Sephardic music as a performance art in a concert hall and out of its communal context is a relatively new phenomenon.

So if Sephardic music isn’t any of these things, then what is it? That question is more difficult to answer. The term “Sephardic music” by itself does not actually mean much. It is only an umbrella term used to describe a great number of extremely diverse musical traditions centered on the Mediterranean basin, but also spread out globally. A thorough and specific analysis of these is unfortunately far too broad for the scope of a single panel session, or a single night, or even a single lifetime of work.

Sephardic music is incredibly diverse because the Sephardic diaspora is very wide and inclusive. Sephardim settled in the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia, but also in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and the New World. Sephardic people appropriated the musical practices of their host countries and integrated them into Jewish life. Each community has its own unique musical traditions—and they often vary within communities. Sephardic music will soak up and learn the musical language of the surrounding culture. Two pieces called “Sephardic” will often have very little in common. A nightclub song from 20th-century Istanbul will sound completely different from the liturgical choral masterworks of the Spanish & Portuguese synagogues of Amsterdam and the New World, which will in turn be much different from the para-liturgical songs from North Africa. In my own experience, Sephardic music is the soundtrack to the life of a community. It is family music, music for worship and community events, and the music of social gatherings with family and friends.


Mahmet Sanikol (file photo)

Mehmet Sanlikol: About that first question: I think asking “what is Sephardic music?” is not that much different than asking “what is Turkish music?” Because if someone were to ask “what is Turkish music?” I’d say well it’s a very hard question to answer. There are zillions of different styles that change from this region to that city from upper class to lower class, and so I think to answer this question, “What is Sephardic music?” is in a way even harder for me to answer than the other question. That word refers to a body of people who are all over the map, and so in my opinion, the question itself is rather very inclusive a question, so I’d rather try and give that analogy and leave it there.

Moderator (Cohen): Ok that’s the first round.

Shelemay: Aren’t you going to answer the questions?

Moderator (Cohen): No, I’m the Moderator.

Shelemay: You tricked us. (laughter)

Moderator (Cohen): No I’m the Moderator. I’m going to throw out some conundrums, and hopefully, I might give an opinion once in awhile. I think there seems to be some consensus that the term Sephardic music goes beyond Spanish folk songs. I was glad that we all feel that way because the folksong category is what’s generally marketed as Sephardic music. I think it’s a much broader thing and there are many sub-traditions and it’s a very rich area of human activity and human musical activity. This said, when we give musical examples tonight we can only do a little bit. I’ve selected just for us to listen to at different points, one song in Spanish in different performances, and another one in Hebrew, both of these going back to Haim Effendi’s recordings that were made in Turkey.

By the way, I will say in parentheses, the problem of what language you call this Jewish Hispanic vernacular, is very similar to the problem of the people of southern France where you hear the term Provençal, you hear Occitan, you hear Nissard, you hear Languedocien, and they’re all different names for a spoken language; you could even argue that Catalan is the branch of that same language. That big language, the language of the troubadours which they call Provençal, is a language without a unified name right now. In our case we have no universally accepted proper name either for these Judaeo-Spanish dialects that are spoken. Ladino seems to cover most of it. Although people will tell you, “no, Ladino only means written down language by scholars to explain sacred texts.”

Pomerantz: and sometimes it is seen as insulting.

Moderator (Cohen): Yes yes. When Haim Effendi sings the music hall song “La Paloma,” he is not singing Ladino; he is singing Spanish. So whatever, let’s leave it at that. And we’ll call it anything we like. Ok let me throw out another Question: Transmission and relative antiquity: Is Sephardic music early music?

Victoria De Los Angeles

Victoria De Los Angeles

Bresler: I may be able to set the historic stage and then others can spring off of that, again because I tried to look at the sweep of recordings. The Spanish soprano, Victoria De Los Angeles, was the first to do medieval sounding or pseudo-medieval accompaniments. And if you have an example…

Moderator (Cohen): I have one, I’ll bring it up.

Bresler: It’s not as if this has been done since time immemorial. I believe we can trace it back to a single recording in 1962.

Moderator (Cohen): Let me underline what Joel Bresler just said. There is a modern oral tradition deriving from de los Angeles, and that lovely recording she made in a very modern style. Now practically all the other subsequent versions you hear derive from her and feature a melancholy, lachrymose lady, more or less pseudo-oriental in style but nonetheless Westernised with chords and harmonizations. The actual old one [by Haim Effendi] is actually up-tempo. It sounds very different and is in a different ethos—it’s oriental music.

Bresler: If I could tie a bow around it and then I’ll yield the floor…so in 1962 we have this first version (just demonstrated) and five years later she releases a recording called “Songs of Andalusia” on which Jordi Savall plays gamba. And this, I am betting, is Savall’s introduction to Sephardic music. Then in 1976 he and his wife released “From Christian and Jewish Spain”, an extremely influential 2-LP set—one with Christian Renaissance music and Sephardic music on the other. Where did he get his Sephardic songs? He got them from a collection by Isaac Levy who himself had learned the songs from informants but then he stripped out all the microtonality, all the shifting rhythmic figures and everything else. It’s very much in a Westernized style. So that’s what they had to work with and then they had to re-imagine it as it might originally have been performed. So they’re taking a deracinated Western version of the music and trying to turn it back into their imagined version of what it might have been.

Haim Effendi

Haim Effendi

Moderator (Cohen): I’d like to point out that not all of Haim Effendi’s performances are microtonal. Some of them are straight diatonic. I think those more diatonic melodies reflect a Moroccan/North African ethos. Moroccan music is not microtonal. Then the diatonicism of some tunes leads us to further questions: Could melodies of that sort possibly point to older, [European] stuff.

Shelemay: Let me just say that I think we should make a distinction between musics transmitted among Sephardic Jews whoever they were or are, wherever they have lived. Surely music has been transmitted and I would surely not argue that it has been transmitted unchanged over time. In fact, in the repertories I’ve studied there is evidence of some songs falling into complete disuse and then being revived a century later, according to testimony within the community. So we are really talking about a recent and more public manifestation of performance of this liturgy. I think that if you look at this situation socially and historically, we are talking about a revival that is part of the broader folk revival of the 50s and 60s. I think that the early music movement is a kissing cousin of the folk music revival, but conveyed though the early music movement. The early music movement is actually earlier than the folk music revival but the political situation is different. I guess that I would argue that what we are hearing in the examples Joel Bresler gave are those from recording history of a recent period. This is a separate stream of tradition, one quite distinct from the historical traditions of these communities, each of which transmit and perform music in their own way. Each transmitted music in different places over periods of time, with their own trajectories. Some of the early field materials have a very tenuous tie to this more public and performative tradition conveyed by modern commercial recordings, a revived tradition of Sephardic music. I do think that there is a great deal of invention or imagination in the Sephardic revival. In this way it is very much equivalent to the Klezmer revival and to other revivals as well. So I see the modern Sephardic revival as part of a broader panoply of revivals of traditional or so called “folk” music—an expression I don’t use a lot —starting in the mid 20th-century . This revival has assumed a life of its own because it has some aspects of descent that lead people to at least imagine that these songs are very old. Some of the texts ARE very old, as Joe Katz has shown very convincingly. But the melodies, I think, are another story altogether. The Sephardic revival has lent itself to performance because these are rich traditions: they are cross-cultural in their origins and thus open the imagination to all sorts of possibilities for performance. We may want to call that re-imagining “orientalism” or borrowing of a colonial sort. However one sees this process, even as some sort of cross-cultural/ fertilization, I think we are dealing with an imagined tradition.

Moderator (Cohen): I think you’re saying, in a tolerant way, what Mr. Pomerantz said in a more polemical way.

Pomerantz: I am being stronger in my language than Dr. Shelemay because I know I am not alone in feeling that our traditions are being misrepresented. So there is a Sephardic secular music—we’ve established this. But I don’t think enough has been said about para-liturgical music—we should it is wonderful—but it’s also not as accessible to people who are not Sephardic as secular repertoire. If I’m a performer coming from outside the tradition and I have these beautiful secular “romances”— a word that is very evocative and very marketable—then why reach for a Hebrew Piyyut? I’m likely to go for something that I could learn.

Sephardic music is not music from medieval or Renaissance Spain Though the textual material may be quite old, not a single fragment of melodic material of Sephardic folksong can be traced to pre-Expulsion Iberia. The greater part of the Judeo-Spanish secular music most performed by groups coming from outside the Sephardic community that has acquired the moniker “medieval” is often not any older than the early part of the 20th century. Some of the composers are still living. As a side-note, I wrote a Djudezmo folksong in the Balkan style of my heritage in 2010 and performed it at a music festival. From the time of composition, it took only four months for it to inherit the label “medieval.”

Moderator (Cohen): Cha cha cha!

Pomerantz: Yes that’s more cha cha cha and has that evocative and problematic word “romance.” It doesn’t mean what you think it does!

Moderator (Cohen): I’m going to play about 30 seconds that support what you said.

[music: “La rosa enflorece, uptempo” with pseudo-flamenco guitars]

Moderator (Cohen):  It’s a party song.

Shelemay: What’s wrong with party songs?

Moderator (Cohen): Nothing, I actually like that approach better for this piece [“La rosa enflorece”]. Mehmet, I want your opinion on this.

Mehmet: All I can add at this point is just a personal experience just because, Kay put it wonderfully. What I remember is from an early music camp that I was invited to as a teacher in residence for Ottoman studies/music. I remember at the faculty recital some of the early music faculty presented a Sephardic song from Salonica (now Thessaloniki) and I remember being utterly surprised when I later started talking to them. First of all the modality of the song was “Saba makam.” This particular modality has a very distinct quality and of course none of it was there. It was totally stripped of its near eastern qualities and then I of course afterwards politely started asking how they came across Sephardic repertoire and found out that it was through what Kay described—the folk overlap— and that it was this, they were a part of in the 70s. They were part of early music studies and Balkan dance groups and it’s a very interesting overlap which I have also discovered.

Moderator (Cohen): For the record, Mehmet what in your opinion is the approximate age of this tune [La rosa]?

Mehmet: I don’t suspect that it goes anywhere earlier than 19th c.

Moderator (Cohen): The earliest transmission I know is Haim Effendi’s recording. And then the score used by Victoria de los Angeles in the 50’s is apparently the transcription from Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, in his Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies (10 volumes, 1914–1932). Idelsohn writes it out the tune in a minor and de los Angeles sings it “off the page,” with all the eighth notes in place and the quarter notes, following a very strict reading of the Idelson transcription. Idelsohn himself is not perfectly accurate because he smooths out some of the musical information of the Haim Effendi recording, which in my hypothesis was probably his source.

Now I’m going to move on to another question but first I want to add my two cents. I like Kay’s tolerant approach; she says, in effect, “this is human activity and nothing that is human is foreign to me.” I think that’s the voice of a true scholar, and also of a true humanist; at least I would define “humanist” that way. So she’s not saying “this is good” and “this is bad.” I’m a little happier with Kay’s approach than with the way you, Ian, attacked so and so the other night. But I see your points. I would like to argue for tolerance, and for the principle of pleasure. I do find that in 90% of these folk song-influenced—those by Balkan dance groups or in hippie revival performances—that what’s mostly been stripped-out are the Turkish and Arabic parts. As though we are uncomfortable—and I’m talking now to the Jewish people in the room—with those aspects of the music. Perhaps we’re uncomfortable with the fact that we’re partly oriental ourselves. And so we add the guitars and recorders.

Shelemay: I don’t agree with that, because it is among Sephardic Jewish communities that you will find the maqam preserved and performed with extraordinary attention to every last detail. Perhaps it is Ashkenazic Jewish performers who are not comfortable with this.

Moderator (Cohen): How can I blame the Ashkenazim collectively? No, I can’t. I know what you’re talking about because you’re in the middle of these Syrian communities and my strictures do not apply there, or to the work that you do. What I’m talking about is these commercial recordings.

Shelemay: Well the commercial recordings are homogenized and approach a lowest common denominator.

Moderator (Cohen): It’s dairy queen.

Shelemay: Yes, possibly.

Moderator (Cohen): As opposed to unpasteurized and coming from a cow.

Pomerantz: I phrase that comment in such a way not because he was “Westernizing” the music but because he was Orientalizing the music. He is putting the music under a magnifying glass in a way that portrayed exotic ideas about unfamiliar musical forms.

Moderator (Cohen): That’s a very interesting point, a good point. Do we have any reactions to that?


Joel Bresler

Bresler: For me the issue is claiming medieval lineage. Again, I collect it all; as far as I’m concerned, anyone can perform anything. I draw the line when claims are made either about its ties back to a traditional community or its ties back to peninsular Spain and particular melodies being tied back there. So for me, I believe this is part of our worldwide cultural patrimony now: anyone has access to it; anyone can perform it. And I’m more than fine with that. What sets me off is when dubious claims are made about the music, either its lineage back to a tradition or its medieval roots. That is what I object to.

Moderator (Cohen): In support of Joel Bresler’s point, I am handing out some CD jackets. I got these illustrations from Spotify. When you’re listening to the track, Spotify will also put on the lower left hand corner the cover of the CD. You’ve already heard some of these performances of “La Rosa Enflorece.” One cover says, in German “Music of the Spanish Jews of 1500” and then here’s another one saying “Spanish Songs of the 13th-century” and then the one with the 4 part harmonization by a chorale says on the cover, “Middle East Harmonies, a musical dialogue between Arab and Israeli cultures” which is interesting because the piece [La rosa] is neither Arabic nor Israeli at all.

Pomerantz: So what set Joel Bresler off are claims of medieval antiquity. They set me off too. What I object to more are many of the portrayals of Jewish people along with the Jewish music.

Sephardic music is not what many critics and performers have described it: “earthy,” “ancient,” “mystical,” and “exotic,” and other evocative catch phrases that tend to sell well. Sephardic music is the music of everyday people, and is no more “exotic” than you or I. It is music about the seasons and holidays, the Jewish life-cycle, about God and worship, about events in Jewish history, about love, and about life. Portraying Sephardic music—and therefore Sephardic people—as an exotic “other” is a road fraught with many dangers that can evoke painful memories of colonialism, Orientalism, and essentialism. These attitudes can be seen even in modern performances. Disks with cover art of 19th-century Orientalist paintings and performances in exotic costumes still unfortunately abound, as do arrangements of Sephardic music so distorted and so removed from any living tradition that they can hardly be recognized as Sephardic music by Sephardim. On numerous occasions I have had to remind performers that members of my community do not have harems attached to their houses, and if my grandmother saw someone singing Jewish music in a belly-dancing outfit, she would be incredibly confused, if not slightly amused.

Shelemay: I think it’s very different responding to a tradition when one is part of it and when one feels oneself to be represented or misrepresented by a performance. Of course, I am only Sephardic by marriage, so I have distanced myself a little. I’m half joking, tongue in cheek, but I do think in this case you are correct about medievalism as a marketing ploy. I actually think that’s the bottom line. It is a marketing ploy. I also roll my eyes when I hear these claims of antiquity for some of these pieces. Nobody knows, but they are likely not nearly as old as people like to suggest. I think that any of us would be offended when we see traditions that we hold close appropriated by others—even if we know the tradition may not go much farther back than our grandmothers—and watch someone else present it in a way that is not at all true to what we’ve experienced. I think that’s kind of galling. I think that is the sentiment you’re expressing, one of the sentiments you’re expressing if I may express it in that way.

Mehmet: On that same note, that’s how I find myself reacting sometimes. I’m obviously not a Sephardic Jew but where I come from I had classmates who were Turkish Jews and it’s very interesting as sometimes I find myself internally in an awkward position going “well, that’s not how they sing.” I kind of remember those feelings.

Moderator (Cohen): I want to underline this because Mehmet is someone who has internalized the systems of Turkish music. So why shouldn’t he perform an Ottoman Jewish piece if he wants to? He absolutely should, in my view, because he will be in touch with certain dimensions of musical art that have kind of been homogenized or pasteurized out of the commercial recordings, some of which we’ve heard today. But can I be devil’s advocate? At least those pieces that are in Spanish are in some sense the patrimony of anyone who speaks Spanish as a mother tongue. Don’t you consider that as a legitimate possibility?

Pomerantz: I feel that anyone can perform Sephardic music. But let me give an example in Western music. I’ve had two piano lessons, am I going to go to Symphony Hall and play Bach? Most likely not. I expect that there should be some engagement or at least knowledge in community that is based in fact. Now with Mehmet, it’s his music too; it’s Turkish-Jewish music; it’s music that his classmates grew up with. I’m honored that he plays Sephardic music and what I’m asking for is a little more engagement and connection with Sephardic people and to living traditions or even the acknowledgement that a living tradition exists.

Shelemay: I would like to suggest that the performers are engaged with the community. It’s just not the birth community of the piece. They’re engaged with an early music community with a performance community, with networks that perform and sustain and compete with each other. So I think our expectations are perhaps not realistic in that count.

Mehmet: I’ll add something to this. Maybe about a decade ago I remember watching a late night show in Turkey. It was running during Ramadan and so it was going to go all the way to dawn and so they gathered maybe 30 legendary performers of Turkish pop and folk music in this one room and they asked them this one question and the results were literally suicidal, they were going to kill each other or commit suicide right there [laughs]. And the question was, can Turkish folk music be performed by anyone? And I’ll never forget that it was a very heated discussion and these people, for some of whom I had utmost respect thinking what gentlemen they are, they turned into some very bitter and angry men and it was amazing what that can do to people. There are a lot of different feelings that can come into this and it goes beyond music and transmission. But I think the other part of this is style, musical style. I think that maybe we can make an effort toward making a distinction between musical style and Orientalism, exoticism, nationalism, etc. And that may be a smart way of getting around this discussion although I think I have to say that if your reaction is what made this happen I think that’s also great.

Bresler: If you listen to the 78s of Haim and his contemporaries, it’s very clear that they were completely rooted in a Turkish musical system, called the Makamlar, to the point (I have been told) that occasionally if people in the Islamic community had a question about makam there were certain rabbis that were tradition bearers of the Turkish classical music tradition that they could turn to and actually ask them questions about it.

Shelemay: Oh yes, that’s true in the Syrian Jewish Aleppo tradition, absolutely.

Bresler: And there was a question I think Joel [Cohen] asked earlier: So why is it ignored? I think in part it’s ignored because you have to be steeped in that culture for a decade or two to even begin to understand the underlying principles and how to perform in it let alone improvise in it. You know Isaac Alghazi was known for his tremendous improvisatorial capability. . .  and that’s certainly lost. I believe that level no longer exists in the Jewish community, and I don’t know if it still exists in the Turkish community. So I believe it was firmly rooted in that tradition and it comes out in many of the 78s of the era.

Shelemay: Could I just add a little note? It strikes me that it’s not just a matter of outsiders interpreting these repertories or constructing these repertories differently. Within these communities there are also differences of opinions and in the Syrian Jewish community in New York City, for example, young Sephardic cantors would come from Israel to join the community and the older Syrian Jewish men would say “oh they’re not doing the real Aleppo style.” Then they would teach these cantors how to sing the Aleppo style. So there are real divides within communities and between even individual practitioners. There’s no single kind of inside and outside.

Pomerantz: I completely agree and I want to say something in support. Many Sephardim love the Victoria de los Angeles recording for several reasons, one of them being that she was an opera singer, and therefore considered prestigious—signaling that Sephardim have gained something toward cultural acceptance.

Shelemay: But there’s just barely a tradition that they’re borrowing from.

Moderator (Cohen): We have some practitioners of Sephardic music in the room. I would like to have your opinions on what we’re discussing now.

Beth Behia-Cohen: I am Syrian Jewish on my father’s side and I’m Russian Jewish on my mother’s side, so I grew up with really different ways of being Jewish. My Syrian Jewish family is from the community in Brooklyn that Kay has studied, written about her book “Let Jasmine Grow Down”. We grew up with Arabic music at all family events – parties, Jewish holidays, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings. I remember well the tradition of Pizmonim, in which popular Arabic music of the day was given Hebrew words for playing in the synagogue on Saturdays and then danced to with the original Arabic words at parties. I remember the calendar from the Sephardic synagogue in Brooklyn that hung in my father’s study.  On each Saturday it noted which maqam the service would be sung in.  Being Sephardic Jews, the music they loved was Arabic music, so that’s yet another definition of Sephardic music.  On one of my trips to Istanbul to study Turkish music, I went to a synagogue in Galata. I was studying makam and when a group of men sang a series of songs with no instruments, I realized that they were singing in makam and the music sounded very much like Sufi ilahis (devotional songs).  I was hearing Maftirim, the Turkish equivalent to Pizmonim.

Mehmet: Mosques

Beth Cohen: They were also taking the music of the culture and putting Hebrew words to it.  When I went with Mehmet and Dunya to perform in Istanbul,we played a concert at the Jewish museum and several members of the Maftirim group were there.  They performed several Maftirim pieces together with Dunya.

Mehmet: And the Maftirim choir, their current practitioners came before. And we sang all together—it was unforgettable.

Beth Cohen: It was so moving for them to be joined by this group, this mix of Americans…

Mehmet: …and Muslim Turks, and I remember one of them (a member of Maftirim) at the end kind of screaming in joy saying “where did you guys come from?”

Beth Cohen: It was such a beautiful experience and then Noam (a Jewish member of our group) went to the synagogue that Saturday and they organized a special Maftirim performance for him, because by then, they had stopped doing it. It was dying out. We talked to a son of one of the singers and he said it is disappearing completely. People don’t speak Ladino and they don’t do Maftirim as part of the Saturday services anymore.


Joseph Benoit Darensbourg

Joseph Benoit Darensbourg: I’m native to New Orleans. I was introduced to Sephardic music through a belly dancer who was very aware of Turkish music and studied it. She sent me on a long path. Our group was called Tariq. I had to learn the material in one day. I asked the engineer, a native of Bolivia, what he thought, and he said “you sound funny.” I was in a rock band and we played with a group called Les Négresses Vertes. I realized that changed my life when I heard that the members were Portuguese, Spanish, French. They were North African and a lot of other things. Playing as a rock band with them, changed my life because, by the time I moved to New England thirteen years ago, I had the Cantigas de Santa Maria recording that Joel Cohen produced, and it changed my life as well. The repertoire came from a lot of these early music sources, but all I cared about were the books and the texts and the things that made me very literate with this rich language

And just to make it short, when I came in I said I was a German Creole to Joel, and he said you don’t look German, and to me that journey to a comparatively Sephardic culture has not only taught me better about who I am, but also sensitized me about people who have hijacked my culture, my identity, my religion, my practices, my ancestry and almost robbed me – because jazz was our medium. My great-grand-uncle with the same name as mine played with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Kid Ory. I’m a Creole, which is a Portuguese word but we did my DNA and they found that there’s Portuguese from east Africa to Brazil. So the people came from Portugal, from Catalunya through slavery. I’m exposed to Sephardic culture by comparison to learn more about my culture. It has helped me define better who I am but I’m 57% European, whether black white green purple, I’m 39% African and I’m 4% Asian. Which is Native American: my grandmother was Choctaw/Cherokee but my four grandparents spoke Creole. American culture destroyed my relationship with them. So I lost my culture and the only way I can re-define it is through this metaphor and vessel to get me home safe and to preserve and record in an articulate way that’s intelligent and scholarly, but I’m far from a scholar.

But everyone here has helped me articulate my identity. I am probably a crypto-Jew as a result of my name and my history and I invoke Judaism, I invoke Spain, I invoke the possibilities of relationships that we all in a cosmological sense come together in confluences that we are brought here today. (New Convevencia)

As a living singer I’ve been in the presence of Mehmet and I got some tips and chops from being around the Turkish music community who happened to be from different islands— very complex like my own culture. Studying and being around Beth Cohen has been important. I have been using the program “Super slow downer” to approach some of the complexities of the Amanedes, Maqamat and Makamler. Old recordings are very fast and often sound too sped-up to imitate, and most contemporary singers who are romantic can’t sing like that. Sephardic cultures helped me hone down a thing that made me leave my home to come here for 13 years to try to master all that, and it’s going to take a long time to finish.

Moderator (Cohen): Thank you. Your narrative is fascinating, isn’t it? When I first met you I thought your origins were Moroccan rather than Louisiana Creole.

I want to do one brief round of musical examples and then I want to close with the Question 6: who is qualified to perform these repertoires? We’ve heard from people who are in it and who are out of it, who have different relationships to it, maybe we can end with that again and perhaps in a less polemical way but without denying some of the probing things that have been said.

But let me talk for a minute about antiquity. None of us can measure back in time very accurately, and all the transmissions are very recent. Certainly there are business or commercial reasons for professional performers to claim great antiquity for Sephardic music; some well-known practitioners persist in making that claim even thought they have been confronted with the more reasoned and factual view.

I am not prepared however to say that there’s absolutely no trace of older stuff in modern tradition. It’s the same kind of problem with Arabo-Andalusian music, which claims to be the Islamic music of 14th century Spain. And it’s the same kind of problem with Anglo-saxon oral tradition music. In Anglo-American traditional repertoires we have found certain traces at least going back to the 16th century. For my part, I just gave a paper in Oregon about fragments of a chant that I claimed to have found in various Sacred Harp and shapenote songs…. anyway be that as it may, briefly, Joel Bresler’s going to give you short excerpts from the song of the Neila ceremony, sung at the closing moments of Yom Kippur—a transmission of a tune from widely varied geographical areas. The title is “El Nora Alila.”

Bresler: Haim Effendi. You heard him earlier doing “A La Una.” The next one is from the Judeo-Spanish tradition —the Bevis-Marks synagogue in London. Clearly a very different presentation. This next version is Hazan Yacoub B’Chiri from Djerba. One more—Jacob and David Najari from Saloniki.

Moderator (Cohen): OK, I think it’s clear that all these versions are related to each other musically. I also have come across a written down transmission of “El Nora Alila” from the Bayonne synagogue from the late 19th, early 20th century. So you have widely dispersed congregations singing these variants. I make no claim to the antiquity of this tune. Kay and I think this, both of us, that there’s a strong possibility it’s just a nice tune that’s been around from the Mediterranean. That would be the Occam’s razor principle, you just look for the simplest explanation first.

However, another possible explanation when you find widely-dispersed variants of the same melody—in Djerba, in the Balkans, in Turkey, in Morocco – when that sort of thing happens you can say, by using the comparative method, you think perhaps all these variants could possibly point back to older sources. I’m very interested in doing this kind of work as well with Arabo-Andalusian music, trying to find out if there is antiquity at least in some aspects of that style. Listen to Haim, a man who knows Makam and yet sings sings “El Nora Alila” in f major…

Mehmet: But about that, the thing I hear in these recordings is that everyone takes that tune and adapts it to their own style. He (Haim Efendi) does sing the third flat; he pushes it in the direction of the Rast Makam because that’s his language and so do the other people. Then what’s more significant to me is that the later recording from Thessaloniki in fact adheres, at least in my opinion, you would know better, to the standards of later Grecofied music of its own day.

Moderator (Cohen): Or that choir in London which is so Fized

Mehmet: Obviously but what is amazing is that Haim Effendi was not even from Istanbul, he lived a part of his life in Istanbul but he was from in fact, Thessaloniki. (Haim was born in Edirne, but stylistically he belongs to the Thessaloniki-Edirne scene with necessary ties to Istanbul). So, what’s amazing is that we have the same city but, in a couple of decades, the performance practice changes.

Moderator (Cohen): And I can say the same thing about Arabo-Andalusian music. The tunes are fairly stable, from the recordings we have around 1910 or 1915 but the performance practices have evolved in just a few decades. Anyway, this kind of comparative work is an important area of research and future enterprise.

For now, let’s go around the table and sum up: Let’s repeat the Question: who’s qualified to perform these repertoires? Do you have to be Jewish to manufacture Levy’s Rye?

Bresler: As I said earlier, I believe anyone can perform anything they want. For me, it’s just a question of whether they make claims that their performance is grounded in a tradition, that there’s a lineage from a tradition bearer or if it’s medieval when it’s not. That’s what upsets me. But for me, part of the fascination of this genre is: how did we go from this minority’s minority’s music in the 78s era (“by Sephardim, as Sephardim, for Sephardim) to a place where we can have this conversation, right? Where it’s been adopted by the folk music movement, by the Early Music movement, by Spanish Christian artists as part of their cultural patrimony, that’s where. For me, that’s just been fascinating, a collision of this music with all these other performing styles, like light pops arrangements and so forth. I find that endlessly fascinating.

Shelemay: I just would agree that I think it’s a great compliment to the Sephardic reputation actual and musical ingenuity that everyone wants to perform this music. I think it’s terrific. I don’t think this is a case in which I would say there is some wrong done or that this is appropriation. I really think that this music is in the public domain. It is both quite interesting and marvelous that people find Sephardic music so interesting.

Moderator (Cohen): So Ian, you have people around this table who are somewhat more open-minded on this question. Have we changed your mind at all?

Pomerantz: Well, how are performers to incorporate all these facts if they still want to perform Sephardic music? Well, personally I am flattered that such interest has been taken by so many performers of a musical heritage that I am proud to be a part of, and I also believe that everyone has the right to participate in it, regardless of their background. As I mentioned earlier, the Sephardic tradition is an interactive one. However, it would help if performers could engage the Sephardic community and conduct an honest discussion with that community about its music, which is now so linked to communal Sephardic identity. Performers must also remember that when they play Sephardic music, they are portraying Sephardic people, and so they must avoid portrayals that can be misconstrued as otherizing, stereotyping, exoticizing, or degrading. With the internet as it is, and communication ever accelerating, it has never been easier to contact and study with bearers of this living tradition. It has never been easier to become a part of that tradition instead of – as Dr. Judith Cohen has concisely said – inventing one.

Furthermore, Sephardic music is not a time capsule in which we can communally see unfiltered the glories of a mythological golden Iberia convivencia – that purported and much-troped time when all three religions got along in simple and perfect peace and harmony in Iberia. In these terms, convivencia never existed in Spain, no matter how much we in our fraught world would like to think, and no matter how much we portray it in our music-making.

Moderator (Cohen): That’s the essential point of this record cover that says “Middle Eastern Harmonies: a musical dialogue between Arab and Jewish cultures,” presenting a four part, Westernized harmonization of a Turkish song that’s neither Arabic nor Israeli. But the laudable intention, the striving for convivencia, is there.

Pomerantz: Right, the intention is there. So as long as we’re being honest with ourselves as long as we are portraying Sephardic music in realistic terms, I am flattered by the attention it has gotten.

Moderator (Cohen): Mehmet, your turn. You are a Muslim who occasionally performs Jewish music.

Mehmet: Sure. On YouTube there is one of the last wonderful recordings of some Maftirim that happens to be sung by a very famous blind Sufi singer who learned it from David Behar who was one of the last representatives of the tradition and because he was blind he had an amazing memory so he remembers them even better than some of the Jewish cantors in the city and that’s human nature. Traditions, politics, and everything that’s human, make us every now and then forget some of these realities. I think that—sure, whatever happens, happens, as long as we don’t forget how Isaak Alghazi used to sing. I think that’s what matters.

Pomerantz: I agree.

Moderator (Cohen): It’s the beautiful performance that matters. We have time for one or two questions, does anyone have a question?

Eiseman: I have a question: are the muezzin and the cantors musical brothers?

Mehmet: In Turkey, I’d say yes. Where I come from in Bursa for example I’ve been to both the Sephardic synagogue and I’ve been in the mosque quite a bit and in terms of their musical language (from where I come from), they sing the same musical language.

Moderator (Cohen): I just want to add to what Mehmet says: There’s a choir in Strasbourg, France that sings Arabo-Andalusian music and they sing it in Hebrew. According to my friend Mohamed Briouel, who is the director of the conservatory in Fez, Morocco, the two youngest members in that choir are the best performers of Arabo-Andalusian repertoire that he knows. They sing the same tunes as Arabophone performers. But they use Hebrew text. So yes there is a big inter-relationship among these things.

Mehmet: But Kay may have a difference in opinion.

Shelemay: Well I was simply thinking that the liturgical function of the same piece would be somewhat different, but I would surely agree with you in terms of the musical systems.

Mehmet: I know for a fact that the same person would take lessons to master the Makam and with this person it would be in Hebrew and with the other person it would be in Turkish and so on and so forth, it didn’t matter.

Moderator (Cohen): “OK, fascinating contributions. Everybody has added a lot to this. Our final introduction to make is the young woman with a camera in the back of the room her name is Yasmina Kamal, she’s the North American coordinator of the Camerata Mediterranea, and she is going to collect everybody’s name and e-mail address, and give you a brochure. We’d like to keep in touch with you; here’s the address:

Thank you, Lee Eiseman, for doing this. All participants can look in the Boston Musical Intelligencer to see how our comments hold up. I think everyone made a wonderful contribution tonight: bravo to all of us.


  1. I am flattered to have been called the director of the Voice of the Turtle, but I think it important to note that I am merely one of the equally important members of the group: Lisle Kulbach, Jay Rosenberg, and Derrick Burrows. The artistic director, Judith Wachs, passed away in 2008.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — December 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  2. Interesting discussion. I don’t understand why Ian’s post was labelled “polemical” to begin with, except that people don’t like simple facts being stated in simple, straightforward ways. Over my 30 years of work on Sephardic music as a scholar and as a singer, I’ve had similar, though not always so long-winded , responses the many times I’ve said exactly the same thing as Ian.
    The other thing I never understand is why otherwise well-educated and sensible musicians would think certain tunes could be “medieval” in the first place (Mehmet said very sensibly that “La Rosa” probably couldn’t be older than the 19th c.)
    And also, why everyone is so anxious to define “Sephardic” but not “medieval.” Most history and music history texts describe the mid-to-late 15th century as Renaissance, or even early modern, not medieval. So a song a Jewish woman sang, say, on the boat out of Spain in 1492,let’s say a song from a decade or two earlier,in the unlikely event that it were sung with the same tune today – would be a Renaissance or Early Modern survival, not a “medieval” one, but obviously those terms aren’t nearly as marketable as “medieval.”
    People are loathe to give up their marketing tools.
    Or, on the other side, their romance.

    Comment by Judith Cohen — December 19, 2012 at 9:35 am

  3. Are the songs as provided in an accompanying cassette to a 1989 book by Susana Weich-Shahak, cited in a later book by Irene Heskes (1994), now considered historically questionable? Is it because they added “intonations, percussions and ululating [!]” to what was “an unaccompanied melody for solo voice”? Are there any more recent, perhaps more “authentic,” citations in published books?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 19, 2012 at 8:04 pm

  4. Bettina, I don’t know the recordings to which you refer, so I am unable to comment on them. In point of fact, we know very little about how Judaeo-Spanish secular song was transmitted in history.

    One theory I have heard is that the songs are essentially womens’ music, and that “authentic” performance implies unaccompanied solo female voice. There is no question that women had a lot to do with conserving and transmitting this repertoire.

    On the other hand, the earliest recordings are by a professional male singer and sometime-composer, and they include instrumental accompaniments, in a Turkish/oriental style. Was there an older-still tradition of accompaniments to these songs? Of singing by both sexes? We don’t know, but I would be reluctant to rule out those possibilities. It’s easy to be dogmatic in these matters; let’s hope we can learn more.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  5. Thanks for your question, Bettina!
    Both men and women have historically had music-making roles in the Sephardic community. I highly respect the work of Susan Weich-Shahak. I found her Orbis Musicae publications particularly fascinating.
    However, I think attaching performance notes such as “an unaccompanied melody for solo voice” is always difficult. Performance practice can vary widely from family to family or community to community. There is a limit to what we can garner from informants. Furthermore, once oral tradition becomes published music and subsequently recorded, any discussions on “authenticity” become quite subjective.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — December 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  6. It’s probably fair to speak of tendencies or habitual channels. The sacred piyyutim are to this day among Moroccan Jews pretty much a guy thing. On the other hand some recent research/performance work has been done in that repertoire by a woman, and a Muslim to boot.

    Women were less likely to know Hebrew or to be versed in liturgy/paraliturgy. Dialectical Spanish was their linguistic home, and they would be natural preservers and transmitters of Romance poetry and song. On the other hand, nobody I have ever heard, of either sex, sings those songs better than did Haim Effendi!

    It’s not an either/or world, in my view.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm

  7. Ian, thanks for your reply. That was the outcome of the panel discussion, of course. I always wonder how previously published scholarship is regarded, given such a conclusion, but as the panel did not mention either of the writers I cited, I was curious about their place in the current wisdom. Your answer therefore is most welcome.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 23, 2012 at 9:34 pm

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