WANDERING ALONG THE ROADS OF SEPHARDIC AND CRYPTO-JEWISH MUSICAL TRADITIONS

Judith R. Cohen

Dear Los Muestros readers,

This is an article in the form of a (long) letter, as over the past decade, Los Muestros has become a far-flung community, and even though we don't all know each other personally, the impression is that one is communicating with a group of friends and acquaintances.

When I saw the interview with me published in LM41, I was extremely surprised, and not very happy, as it was not intended for LM, but rather was done as a favour to a colleague in Spain, and to be used in an entirely different context. It is certainly a-typical of the kind of questions I usually work on; and, while I was dismayed to see it in LM, at least it spurred me to accept our good friend Moise Rahmani's invitation to write something about where I really direct most of my working time and energy!

My work in Judeo-Spanish music is a constant in my life, both as an academic researcher and as a performer. But no one can keep doing the same thing in the same way for too long. Not having a full-time job is a negative situation in many practical ways, but also permits me to work on all kinds of projects. So, while I continue to research, document and perform Judeo- Spanish songs, often with Tamar Ilana, my 14-year-old daughter and frequent working partner, I've been working on various more-and-less related projects. These include: studying innovations in the performance of Judeo-Spanish songs; singing music from various Sephardic diasporas, especially the Balkans; developing a discography of Sephardic music, (with my colleague Joel Bresler in Boston); developing a genre of singing and story-telling integrating Sephardic and pan-European balladry; and finding appropriate medieval manuscript music for medieval Hispano-Hebraic poetry. A recent addition is coordinating the Spain section of a large project to issue annotated CD's of the 1950's field recordings of the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Two ongoing research projects which continue to occupy much of my time, energy and enthusiasm are:

- the use of Sephardic music in activities along the «Red de Juderías»,

and, especially dear to my heart over the past few years:

- musical life among the Crypto-Jews of Portugal, and traditional music in the border regions of Spain and Portugal where they live now and/or have lived historically.

I've been lucky enough to have held research and travel grants without which I couldn't possibly do this and other work, and will express my appreciation for them right here, instead of relegating them to a foot-note: York University ‘s Office of Research Assistance (1996-1998), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (1998-2001), the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (1998), the Canada Council for the Arts (various years), and the Spanish Embassy (Canada), 2000.

The two main events I've worked on along the Red de Juderías, especially in terms of my published work, are the Festa da Istoria in Ribadavia, Galicia, and the «Jewish festival» in Hervás, Extremadura. I won't go into detail here, because I have done so in a series of articles (see the list at the end). Sephardic history and culture in Spain and Portugal are the subject of intense folklorization and rampant romanticization. Some of this has positive results in terms of attitudes towards Jews in both countries, but in some ways it promotes inaccuracies and misunderstandings.

Many visitors to these festivals, or to the towns themselves either during the festivals or at other times when nothing special is going on, don't realize that no Jews live there or have lived there in centuries, although their Jewish past, and often the presence of conversos for a long time, has been well documented. Many times, I have heard visitors speak of residents of these towns as if they were Jewish – not only are they not, though some have a tradition of Crypto-Jewish practices in their families – but many of those I've interviewed during my fieldwork have told me they are becoming rather tired of being taken as Jewish. Others are happy to dress up in «medieval» or «medieval Jewish» (in fact, they are neither) clothes for the days of the annual festivals. In Hervás, where the festival is only a few years old, every year another few street signs sport a Maguen David («Calle del Convento/Convent Street» for example!) and now in the so-called «Taberna Judia» the toothpick holder boxes next to the pork meat tapas are engraved with the Star of David, and it's even carved into the bar stools – so one ends up sitting on it. Somehow, this is supposed to validate a «Jewish presence», along with such details as the name of the «Hotel Sinagoga» (complete with a tall cross in front of it) ‘ whose formal name most people are not aware is «Montecristo».

In terms of the music, again, songs which any town resident happens to know, as part of the general regional repertoire, have been implied to be «Jewish» or «ancient Sephardic» songs – even though most of them are late 19th century broadside ballads, songs popularized during the early days of radio broadcasts or even Christmas songs. In Hervás, a song from the peteneras genre, generally considered not to have originated before the mid-19th century, refers to a «bella judía» (beautiful Jewess) going to «a sinagoga» to see the «rabeco». In keeping with the negative aspect of most Extremadura folklore concerning Jews, «rabeco» has nothing to do with «rabbi», as has been assumed, but is actually a kind of mountain goat! Nevertheless, the song has been presented as of «old Jewish origin» by all kinds of people, in recent performances, but also in written scholarly controversies, of which, fortunately, the more documented and sensible point out the anomalies of this claim.

In Ribadavia, the Festa da Istoria has now been around for some 15 years (see my articles for more detail). Among the photographs I've taken there, my favourite features the «Charcutería la Hebráica» with the sign «buy your ham sandwiches here». The re-enactment of the Sephardic wedding, during the first couple of years, included participants dancing and singing in the street - perhaps a little unrealistic, as the «bride» was dancing hand in hand with the «rabbi» and smoking a cigarette in between, but at least it maintained a cheerful, spontaneous wedding atmosphere, and the organizers even tried make sure Judeo-Spanish rather than Castilian pronunciation was used. But over the past few years, the music for the «wedding» has been handed over to a conductor who directs the local convent choir, and the songs (which, mystifyingly, include a Hanuka song sung for a wedding re-enactment at the end of August) have come to sound more like church choir arrangements than lively Sephardic wedding songs. Perhaps this is not totally inappropriate, as the «wedding» ceremony now takes place in the old Church of La Madalena, «decorated» with a Magun David for the day of the Festa.

More positively, in both towns it is interesting to see how Judeo-Spanish songs have actually been adopted into the repertoire of some townspeople, so that in an informal singing session in a tavern in Ribadavia or in the large folk ensemble (Retama) of Hervás, one might hear a few songs included with no self-consciousness: songs learned from various CD's – or even, sometimes – from me, during workshops and teaching sessions I've given there over the years. Last year Tamar and I ended up spending New Year's Eve in Hervás, and Tamar told me that when her teen-aged friends – many of whom sing in Retama – were wandering around the streets singing traditional Christmas songs, they included the Moroccan version of «Coplas de Purím» which they learned from our old Gerineldo recording years ago. Tamar told me she pointed out to them that this was not only a Jewish song, not a Christmas song, it was also for another holiday altogether. But, she reported, they answered her cheerfully, «well, it's a happy song; what does it matter which happy song is used for which happy occasion?» !!!

This past summer, I was invited to sing for a «Féria Medieval de las Tres Culturas» in Zaragoza. The organizer instructed me to sing «medieval Sephardic songs». I explained to him that we don't HAVE any «medieval Sephardic songs», that we have many wonderful songs from oral tradition, several of which have their roots in the Middle Ages, but we don't know what their melodies were then, as neither Jews nor Muslims wrote their music down at that time. He insisted. I offered traditional Sephardic songs, and medieval songs of the troubadours from manuscripts. No, he only wanted «medieval Sephardic». Finally, he said, «well, as Sephardic as possible!» At the festival, I saw young musicians playing a variety of saxophones, Middle Eastern drums, accordeons and so on, and later asked them what music they had been playing. «Well,» one of them told me, «they said to make it as Arabic as possible»! All this can be seen as good fun, and pleasant, a nice way to pass the time, and a positive way of presenting Jewish culture in Spain. And in many ways, all these aspects are part of the festivals . But at the same time, it presents an inaccurate picture of Jewish life in Spain both before the expulsion and now. As an ethnomusicologist, I am trained to observe this with objective equanimity, as part of processes of hybridization, of folklorization, of all kinds of ‘ologies and ‘izations which professionally are part of my outlook - but which as a person, I cannot always treat so dispassionately.

My work with the Crypto-Jews in Portugal is entirely different. Here, we are not talking about fiestas and festivals and public presentations; quite the contrary, since centuries of living secretly have produced, not surprisingly, a way of life entwined with secrecy, suspicion and great discretion. Even today, when many Crypto-Jews have become openly practicing Jews in the town of Belmonte (and elsewhere, though not in formal communities, there are still Crypto-Jews who do not reveal their identity or join the small mainstream congregation, and there are some who do both: «crypto» or «hidden» on more than one level. I've published a couple of articles about their musical traditions, but always hesitate to write a lot, because of the need to respect their confidence and maintain the secrecy – or discretion – they've worked so hard to preserve over centuries. It has been a very moving experience to work with them, and to have developed close friendships with some families. Tamar and I stay in one of their houses, eat with them, hear their prayers (though usually we are not permitted to record them), join them at Passover (again, without recording anything); Tamar helps with the small children. I was there when the synagogue was opened in December 1996, and we both have been there more than once during the bizarre week in late April when everything sometimes happens at once: Passover, Easter, the night procession of Our Lady of Hope (the town's official saint's day), the anniversary of Cabral (the Belmontean who «discovered» Brazil) and the national day of April 25th, the Portuguese Revolution!

I began to work with the Belmonte Crypto-Jews, and with remnants of Crypto-Jewish groups in Tras-os-Montes, because I wanted to know what musical traditions the Jews who never left the Peninsula had kept, if any. I think the answer is basically «not any». Their old prayers, including the Biblical ballads they use as prayers, are, generally recited rather than sung. The melody for the ballad/prayer sung at Passover about the Crossing of the Red Sea (heard in the Israeli video which came out in the 1990's) is not a very old melody, but a popular, widespread folk tune which has probably only been around since the late 19th century. Samuel Schwarz includes it in his famous book on the Crypto-Jews, finding it «very ancient and oriental» – but it is obvious that it is neither of these things. They also sing a narrative ballad about «Judah the troubadour» and his beloved «Tamar»; but both its text and its melody indicate that it, too, is not a particularly old song, probably from about the turn of the 20th century.

It is not surprising that a group maintaining traditions and indeed an entire identity in secret, for a long time under pain of death, would be hesitant to sing melodies different from those of the main culture. What I have been finding, bit by bit as I keep returning to Portugal, is that many people know (though fewer sing or play) local songs and playparty singing games. While these may be sung casually for recreation, they sometimes have different contexts and meanings. The second time I attended a Passover picnic outside Belmonte (in the old days, held far from town so Christians wouldn't see the matza, but now from custom), one of the men who played harmonica asked me if I could identify the tune he was playing. I could and did, laughing, because it was a regional Christian pilgrimage song, and his using it as my «test» was a kind of joke on the whole situation. (Crypto-Jews in Belmonte have a very particular sense of humour - as my Portuguese slowly improves, I understand more of this humour, and regret what my linguistic deficiencies must have caused me to miss during my first visits! ) Tras-os-Montes is different – there is no organized community, no synagogue, though there was one in Bragança in the early 20th century. There, the Jews I have met are well aware of who they are, but generally have maintained few, if any, Jewish practices, though some have joined formal Judaism, and have gone to live elsewhere. In the small villages between Bragança and Miranda do Douro, the same woman might tell me one year she is «Jewish» or of Jewish origin, «dos quatro costados» - and another year will say she isn't - or vice versa : the first time she won't tell me, and later she will. Active practices have not been maintained for a while; and for some decades, endogamy has not been strictly maintained, at least in the Tras-os-Monte villages. The old prayer-women – the rezadeiras – are dying. I did record – on audio and video - a series of prayers and recited Biblical ballads from Olivia «Tabaco», shortly before her death, when she was about 90 – and even she told us that it had been a long time since she actually practiced; in fact, it was mostly her mother and aunts' generation who had done so rather than hers.

During my fieldwork, it is crucial to also interview non-Jews: part of my flexible questionnaire is designed to ask questions about people's attitudes toward local «Judeus» and ideas about their musical traditions. This is often delicate, so I embed these questions in others about «marginal» groups – Gypsies, muleteers, legends about «Mouros» etc. Tamar and I have also had the privilege of becoming friendly with some Portuguese Gypsies (they tend not to use the now politically correct term «Rom» or «Roma», as «Gypsies» in many countries now prefer to do); a privilege because it is not easy or common for «payos» to become friendly with them. There is also a lot of romantic folklore and popular mytholozigation about the historical relations of Jews and Gypsies in Spain and Portugal, and about the supposed connections of flamenco (to say nothing of fado) and Sephardic music, but that is another story for another time.

Clearly, it was impossible for me to conclude anything about musical traditions among Portuguese Crypto-Jews if I didn't know the musical traditions in the areas where they live. An increasingly large part of my ethnomusicological research has been just that: learning about the music along the border of Spain and Portugal, as far as possible first-hand, by conducting fieldwork in small villages. These have included areas of Galicia, Tras-os-Montes, Sanabria, Zamora, Salamanca, Beira Alta and Beira Baixa, Extremadura, and Alentejo. As I don't drive, I end up appreciating the urban transportation which facilitated my interviews with Sephardim in Montreal or New York or Istanbul, Salonica, Tel Aviv etc. Between villages, it may be on ramshackle local busses - when they are available and when their mysterious schedules can be deciphered. Sometimes friends or colleagues offer lifts (and expertise) – but, often as not, «no hay más remedio», there's no other way than to revert to my 1960's hitchhiking days, «à boleia». Village women who have met me before and even sometimes have only heard of me, will sometimes call out, «ah, here comes that crazy Canadian woman professor who has no car and no husband, and carries an old knapsack, and loves our old songs...» – and add «have you eaten yet?» I've been caught up in researching these village traditions for their own interest, and for the fascination of studying music on both sides of the Spanish-Portuguese border. This in turn has led me into all kinds of projects – examinations of gender roles, for example, and also an intensive study of Iberian women's drumming, especially the women's square frame drum, known in Portuguese as «adufe» –from the Arabic «al-duff» and perhaps also the Hebrew «ha-tof» – in a way, this brings me back full circle to the early Muslim and Jewish presence in Iberia.

Singing the traditions I research has always been part of my life. We've learned several Portuguese village songs in traditional style, and presented a concert for the Portuguese Consulate in Toronto. The Portuguese Consul then came to our concert of Sephardic songs in a Toronto synagogue , which it would not otherwise have occured to him to do, so it served as an exciting new meeting point. In Spain and Portugal we've presented Judeo-Spanish songs in several universities, town halls, and festivals, and in a couple of mini-courses as well. At the University in Cáceres, we also taught Bulgarian and other Balkan dances and songs – and related them to the Sephardic diaspora. At the request of the Teacher's College music education students, we even taught Canadian First Nations «Indian» traditions: Tamar has native blood on her father's side and has considerably more first-hand experience than I do. While this may seem totally unrelated, First Nations people share with Sephardim (and other Jews) a history of being marginalized and discriminated against in their own country. Also, some of you may remember my article in LM years ago (and later revised in Canadian Women's Studies) about the remarkable Bosnian Sephardic woman who lived for decades on a Mohawk reservation outside Montreal! Disseminating and explaining Judeo-Spanish songs around the Iberian Peninsula has led to enriching dialogues, and to ongoing friendships and professional collaborations.

Our new CD (Empezar quiero contar: Canciones de Sefarad, Pneuma, Madrid) puts together many of these themes and concerns. It focuses on some of the older elements of the Judeo-Spanish repertoire, as well as medieval Iberian Jewish poetry (Hebrew; Galaico-Portuguese) set to traditional melodies, or for which I have found medieval non-Jewish melodies which fit them in terms of chronology and prosody. It also includes a couple of Portuguese songs from the Beira Baixa and Tras-os- Monte regions, and begins with the only known medieval Jewish melody which exists in manuscript form, a piyyut by «Obadiah the Proselyte».

This is the tip-of-the-iceberg of what I've been doing with respect to Sephardic, Crypto-Jewish and related traditions. As I write this, I'm preparing material for teaching next week, at the Ashkenazi cultural week KlezKamp, the first time Sephardic culture has been included there – an exciting project for me, especially as an Ashkenazi myself! Below, I've listed some of my relevant articles below; and you can access the list through a link on my web-page, as well as the text of my mini- discography of documentary traditional recordings of Judeo-Spanish songs, and my «Brief Introduction to Sephardic Music» .

Please let me know about any ideas, information, disagreements and so on you want to share!

«Sanos y buenos», Dr Judith R Cohen

Articles mentioned or relevant:
See links at bottom left of:
http: //www.yorku.ca /judithc .

1995a "Romancing the Romance: Perceptions (and Boundaries) of the Judeo-Spanish Ballad", in James Porter, ed. ,Ballads and Boundaries: Narrative Singing in an Intercultural Context, UCLA:209-217.
1995b "Women's Role in Judeo-Spanish Song", in Maurie Sacks, ed., Active Voices, Women in Jewish Culture, University of Illinois:181-200.
1995c "'Just Harmonizing it in their Own Way': Change and Reaction in Judeo-Spanish Song" Revista de Musicología (Madrid) 6/3, 1995:1578-1596
1996a "Pero la voz es muy educada": Reactions to Evolving Styles in Judeo-Spanish Song Performance", Sephardica: Hommages Haïm-Vidal Séphiha, ed. W. Busse et al., Berlin, Peter Lang:65-82
1996b "A Bosnian Sephardic Woman in Kahnewake, Québec", Canadian Women's Studies 16/4:112-3
1998 "Back to the Future: New Directions in Judeo-Spanish Song", in From Iberia to Diaspora, ed. Yedida Stillman and Norman Stillman :496-514
1999a »Sephardic Music»: in World Music, the Rough Guide, 2nd ed., ed. S. Broughton, V.I:370-4
1999b "Belmonte dos meus Amores: Ethnomusicological Fieldwork among Iberian Crypto-Jews,» in Annette Benaim, ed., Acts of the Tenth British Conference on Judeo-Spanish Studies, London,Queen Mary and Westfield College: 265-288
1999c "Music and the Reconstruction of Iberian Crypto-Jewish Identity", in Targarona Borrás, Judit and Angel Sáenz-Badillos, eds., Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Proceedings of the 6th EAJS Congress. Toledo, July 1998, Leiden-Boston-Köln: Brill, vol. II, 282-292.
1999d «Constructing a Spanish Jewish Festival: Music and the Appropriation of Tradition», World of Music 41/3:85-114
2000a "'Ca no soe joglaresa': Women Musicians in Medieval Iberia's Three Cultures", in A. Klinck and A. Rasmussen, eds., Cross-Cultural Approaches to Medieval Women's Song, University of Pennsylvania.

Retour au sommaire


- Copyright © 2000: Moïse Rahmani -