Sephardic Songs – In the Hispano-Arabic Tradition of Medieval Spain


This album gathers melodies from the earlier Sephardic tradition. Medieval Spanish romances and Arabic-Andalusian songs illustrate the preservation and further development of the Sephardic musical culture after its originators, the Spanish Jews, had been expelled from Spain. With the soloists Fadia el-Hage from Beirut und Belinda Sykes, London.

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The Sepharad sphere of influence was initially only embodied in the word of the Bible. Its geographical location was as yet undefined when Genesis pointed the way and the Israelites left the land of their fathers. Over the centuries, the term “Sepharad” gained in cultural, religious and historical significance. Since then, in addition to a place of exile, “Sepharad” has held a promise of a religious conviction and of cultural self-determination.

Over two thousand years ago the Jews fled from Nebuchadnezzar and the ruins of the Jewish empire and gradually crossed the Mediterranean. Since Roman times there has been evidence of Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula. In the year 589 Christianity was declared the official state religion by the ruling Western Goths. Exercising repression in the form of forced baptism and death threats, these new Christians forced thousands of Jews to leave the Iberian peninsula. As a result, those Jews who remained behind viewed the Islamic conquest of Spain in the year 711 more as a liberation than a threat. In the Muslim state order Jews had the opportunity to rise to high positions in the government and administration. The Jewish communities in medieval Spain were therefore strongly linked with the Muslim emirates and especially with the caliphate of Cordoba. The Hispano-Arabic Middle Ages represent an important chapter of Judaic history. Having participated in the golden age of classical Arab culture in the Near East, Jews played an important role in Spain as mediators between Arab and Christian culture, and Jewish poetry and music consequently reached a new pinnacle. In the 13th and 14th century Jews were also musicians at the Castilian court. Together with Arab musicians they played an important role in the performance of the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” (eleven of which tell of Jewish live and culture in Spain), compiled by King Alfonso el Sabio (1252-84). At the court of Sancho IV, along with thirteen Christian and fifteen Arab musicians, the Jew Ismaël played the rota and accompanied his wife when she danced.

The 14th century, when the Catholic reconquest of Spain made considerable progress, brought the harmonious co-habitation of Spanish Christians, Jews and Muslims to an end. The pogroms and persecutions of 1391 led to mass conversions of Jews and Muslims. The mid-15th century saw the establishment of the Inquisition, which accused many conversos (those who had converted from other religions) of practicing their original beliefs in secret.

The exodus of Hispanic Jews began on August 2, 1492: in the course of just a few months it is believed that over 160.000 Jews were forced by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to leave Spain and all Spanish sovereign territories in the most undignified manner. Many Sephardic Jews fled to French Provence. Hispanic Jews who had converted to Christianity also settled as late as the 17th century in Bordeaux, Marseilles and Bayonne, after they too had been forced to leave Spain and Portugal. Many Sephardim sought to start a new life on the North African coast. The majority however, 60.000 or more in number, found a haven in the sovereign territories of the Ottoman Empire: in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, Smyrna, Adrianople (Edirne), Gallipoli, Ankara, in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and the Balkan states. As Sultan Bayezit remarked on the exodus of the Sephardim: “It is said that King Ferdinand, King of Castille and Aragón, is a clever man, but by driving the Jews from his own country, he is impoverishing his empire and enriching mine.” Sephardic communities were also established in Italy (Ferrara, Livorno), after the end of Spanish rule in the Netherlands (Amsterdam), in Germany, Austria and in the New World.

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In the Diaspora Hispanic Jews handed down their medieval Spanish past: customs, music and language. The traditional songs characteristic of the Sephardic Jews were and still are to this day the romanzas in the Jewish-Spanish tongue – judezmo – which is today sometimes misinterpreted as ladino (a term which actually refers to translations from Hebrew into Spanish: ladinar) and corresponds to djudiyo in the Levante and haketiya in the Maghreb. The lyrics of these songs recount the lives of Spanish Jewry and tell of Spanish history. Only a few written examples of this music have survived from the Spanish Middle Ages. However, in addition to the descriptions of Sephardic musical practice taken from medieval sources, the Sephardim’s oral heritage provides a guide to this immensely rich musical culture.

The development of Sephardic music is inexorably linked to the history of Spanish Jews following their expulsion. After leaving Spain and Portugal the Sephardim settled in numerous communities in the Mediterranean region. There they sang their songs brought from Spain and sought to maintain their Spanish culture. In the new environment, usually far from Spanish influence, they lived in crowded communities, defiantly continuing to speak their Spanish mother tongue and glorifying their Spanish past.

Since the repertoire of songs was and to some extent still is a significant element of Sephardic community live, it was possible to preserve their songs over five centuries. This living tradition, in which the exiles handed down old Spanish epic stories in late medieval Castilian, was greatly influenced by the various languages and musical cultures of the countries in which the Sephardim lived. The Sephardic way of life eventually blended with local traditions in their host countries. As early as the Middle Ages Spanish Jews had worked closely with musicians from other cultures, and this tradition was continued without interruption after the exodus. Not only were melodies integrated into the performance of sacred and secular poetry, but many musical elements too, such as the modal system, rhythmic and metric characteristics, melodic embellishments and cadential formulas, all flowed into the traditional repertoire. In addition, numerous new songs developed which make up the main body of the repertoire still sung today. By the beginning of the 18th century at the latest the Sephardic colonies of the western and eastern Mediterranean (Ottoman Empire) formed two clearly distinguishable and independent cultures. Due to its geographical proximity, the western or North African was able to maintain its ties to the Iberian peninsula, while the eastern camp was exposed to new influences to a great extent.

It is therefore possible to define two main traditions within the Sephardic song culture, with regard to repertoire, melodic structures and performance practice: that of the eastern Mediterranean, mostly under Turkish and Balkan (generally Ottoman) influence and that of the western Mediterranean, significantly influenced by Moroccan and Spanish elements. With Europe’s increasing political and economic impaact on the Middle East due to colonization, western musical influences increased, especially in Northern Africa.

Any formal comparison of songs from the western and eastern repertoires, that is, from two independent music traditions which enjoyed only a minimum of mutual contact, reveals the fact that, quite independently of one another, both traditions have handed down some of the repertoire and characteristics of the medieval Sephardic romance heritage of Spain.

Some Sephardic Jews continued their emigration from Thessaloniki and Constantinople, the two central colonies in the Ottoman Empire, to Jerusalem, where an important Sephardic community developed which even today is still an amalgam of Palestinian, Turkish and Balkan elements. This accounts for the many corresponding features in the lyrics and tunes of the Palestinian and Balkan songs.

The female voice is dominant in traditional Sephardic musical performance. Many of the topics featured in the songs are represented from a woman’s point of view, since it was the women who, in the Diaspora, passed on the Sephardic traditions to their daughters. Today the singers further develop the living tradition, accompanying themselves on the frame drum (pandeiro). The Spanish monk Andres Bernáldez was an observer of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain and left the following lines, documenting the important role of women in the Sephardic song tradition: “They left the country in which they were born. Great and small, young and old, on foot, donkeys or in carts, each followed the path to his or her chosen destination. Some stopped at the wayside, some collapsed from exhaustion, others were ill, yet others dying. No fellow creature could have failed to have pity on these unhappy people. All along the way there were constant appeals for them to accept baptism, but their rabbis instructed them to refuse and implored the women to sing, beat their drums and to uplift their souls.”

Later, in the Diaspora, the Sephardic romances were adapted by professional male musicians and performed in coffee houses and taverns. In the same way, sacred texts were – and still are – set to romance tunes.

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As early as the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the romance or ballad was a very popular song-form in Spain. It originally survived as folk song and was not introduced to the Spanish court until near the end of the 15th century. Like most Sephardic romances, especially those handed down through the eastern tradition, the 15th century romance, as notated in various sources including the “Cancionero musical de Palacio” and in the tablatures of 16th century vihuelists (there it is described as a romance viejo), has a poetic structure of sixteen syllables with assonant rhymes and a musical form with four phrases of equal length.

The first musical phrase often has an arched, rising and then descending melodic contour; sometimes we encounter a purely ascending melodic line. The second melodic phrase is usually higher and touches the melodic high point. These two melodic lines are seldom identical. The third melodic section then descends stepwise to the lower cadence note. The fourth phrase often ends the melody in a cadential downward movement.

Many of the melodies are based on a descending chromatic tetrachord which is also characteristic of the musiqà andalusiyya. In the eastern Mediterranean region melodies can often be attributed to the modes (makamât) of Islamic musical culture; the Hüsseynî, Ushâk, Bayâti, Hicâz, Hicâzkâr, Pûselik, Nihâvent and Ferahfeza modes are frequently encountered. In the western Mediterranean, especially in Morocco, the diatonic principle was often applied to the melodies, probably under later European influence, and they were made to conform with major / minor key tonality.

In the rhythmic-metric performance of the romances, metric and non-metric sections are often interwoven. The eastern tradition reveals a strong tendency towards a performance devoid of metric constraints, while in the western / Moroccan repertoire the abrupt shift from the binary to the ternary meter is popular.

The Judaic musical culture attained great significance through its preservation and dynamic modification of medieval Spanish romances on the one hand, and of the Arabic-Andalusian muwaççaªat- and ∆arjas on the other. This is demonstrated in the second section of our journey through time and cultures by means of the different compositional genres. It is our aim to create a living aural picture of the former symbiosis of medieval story-telling of north Spanish, Andalusian or Hispanic-Jewish origin with oriental melodies from Asia Minor or the Balkans: the sphere of influence of “Sepharad”.

Categories: Tags: , , SKU: 4206-2


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