LOS CAMINOS DE SERKECI (SEPHARDIC MUSIC)
Thes Sephardic Jews
In 1492 the Catholic King and Queen of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, decreed
that all Spanish Jews must either convert or be expelled from what had been
their homeland on the Iberian Peninsula since the Christian 1st Century, or in other words for over 1500 years.
In just a few months over 160,000 Jews emigrated to the Ottoman Empire, Provence,
the north of Africa, the Balkan States, Italy and Holland.
The traditional songs of Sephardic Jews (descendents of those first emigrants), were and continue to be the romances in the Judeo-Spanish language of Judezmo, erroneously referred to as Ladino which is actually the term for the translations from Hebrew into Spanish that the Rabbis made.
The lyrics of these songs describe the Jewish way of life and tell us of our own history. There are no remaining manuscripts of these popular pieces, but a large part of this inheritance has come to us through an oral tradition which has survived over 500 years.
The Sephardic lifestyle merged with the that of the different lands these people inhabited and melodies, rhythms, instruments, cadences and ornamentation from these cultures were incorporated into the repertoire. Foreign words and other elements that served to express the voice of a people were also taken on.
In this traditional music, the female voice predominates. Men who speak Hebrew participate in the liturgy of the synagogue. It is them who carry the voice in printed lay and folk songs. Women in general did not understand written Hebrew and sang in the Judeo-Spanish language of their daily life. Their songs spoke of the cycle of life; birth, growth, marriage and death.
At the beginning of the 13th Century, the Sephardic colonies on the east and west of the Mediterranean had evolved into two clearly distinguishable cultures. That of the Eastern Mediterranean, influenced by Turkey and the Balkans, and the Western Mediterranean culture, clearly influenced by Moroccan and Spanish ideas. It is still the same today and in constant evolution.
Today’s Jewish community in Spain number around 15,000. Apart from this, there are millions of people who, unaware of their ancestry, are descended from the Jews.
Understanding and sharing these songs is a way of learning about the history of the land we inhabit and enriching our personal and cultural identities.
Our vision of Sephardic Music
We usually listen to Sephardic music that is performed from one of two perspectives: The world of classical musicians, with all that their discipline entails: operatic voices, musicians playing from scores that leave no room for improvisation…or, from what we consider to be an excessively “authentic” standpoint, too centred on recordings that lack arrangements or a more artistic interpretation and attention to detail.
Though we respect both options, we prefer to approach the tradition from the
point of view of the lands that gave shelter to the Sephardic Jews. After all
that is where they themselves found inspiration as they settled in new lands
after the great exodus. We try to embellish the music with the most natural resources that would have been available to these cultures and attempt to
preserve the original spirit of each piece as far as possible. Our aim is to
present the music for the pleasure of an audience as opposed to treating the
songs as untouchable museum pieces, or ethno-musicological material. This latter
field is more than adequately covered by the wide range of excellent recordings
available on the market.
We must also consider that despite their Peninsular origins, the music of the Sephardic Jews came to lose ties with the Iberian traditions. In fact it is frequent to hear songs that were originally in Greek or Turkish adapted to the Judeo-Spanish language, examples of which are “O Ergatis Timimenos” from the Greek or “Gül Pembe” from Turkish. Choruses in these languages are also found in Judeo-Spanish folk songs and of course, new pieces were composed or old romances adapted using the North African or Ottoman modes (makam) and rhythms traditional to the countries of adoption (karsilamas, tsifteteli, curcuna…).
In some cases we have been so daring as to mix Sephardic music with Turkish or Greek that are clearly similar, or to include fragments of our own composition while making every effort to preserve the original spirit of a piece.
Here you can listen to some fragments of old recordings that give examples of all these cases:
● The singer Victoria Hazan from Izmir in Turkey. Recordings in New York in the 40s with songs in the three languages she was fluent in: Judeo-Spanish, Turkish and Greek. Accompanied by the kanun, ud, violin, percussion and clarinet. This is an amazing selection of music in the orchestral style of Turkish cafés, sung in the ancient Iberian language.
● Another musician from Izmir, the blind Josepo Burgana, recorded in 1984 by Susana Weich-Shahak. This professional musician sings romances and accompanies himself on the cümbüs.
● Kantor Isaak
Algazi (b.Izmir Turkey 1889, d.Montevideo Uruguay, 1950). A beautiful
testimony to Sephardic music in the last decades of the Ottoman period. In the
early 20s there was not a single Jewish household boasting a gramophone in
Turkey that did not have recordings by Algazi, and by the end of the 30s,
he was known throughout Turkey as ne’im zemirot Israel. Algazi was
greatly admired not only by the Jewish people, but by the Turks who considered
him one of their greatest musicians, and honoured him with the titles of
Efendi and Hoca, which are reserved only for the greatest of
● Bienvenida Aguado-Mushabak (1929 Chanakale, Turkey). In this 2002 recording by Susana Weich-Shahak, this truly virtuoso singer gives us a lively sample of how languages and other cultural aspects co-existed in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th Century. The song is sung in Turkish, its original language and in Judeo-Spanish into which it was translated almost word for word.
The sounds of Aman Aman are
based on those of the stringed, wind and percussion instruments of the Ottoman
Empire and Northern Africa (kanun, ud, cümbüs, baglama, kopuz, nay, kaval,
darbuka, riq, bendir etc.) as they can be heard in several old recordings. They
are combined here with the somewhat more “up-to-date” sound of the cello, though
performed in the style of the modern orchestras of Maghrib, Turkey and Egypt.
Jewish musicians Chagli Bagdad played at weddings and both Jewish and Muslim celebrations. Here they are in Cairo, 1932 participating in the Arabian Music competition which they went on to win. The musician holding the ud is the famous Daoud Al Kuwaiti.
Sephardic singer from Istanbul, Nissim Baruh plays the kanun in 1914.
(Taken from the book “Es razón de alabar” by Miguel A. Sanchez)
Orchestra from the 30s with ud, kanun, pandero and Jewish singers (Thessaloniki)
The Ottoman composers of Jewish origin
Cuando hablamos de música sefardí en el Imperio Otomano solemos focalizar nuestra atención en el repertorio popular y la música ligera de uso cuotidiano (canciones de boda, melodías populares de éxito...). Pasamos por alto así la importancia del colectivo judío dentro de la música clásica otomana, dejando de lado el peso y la influencia que ejercieron personajes como Tanburi Isak, Isak Varon o Misirli Ibrahim Efendi, todos ellos intérpretes y compositores de canciones (şarkı, beste...) y de piezas instrumentales (Saz Semaisi, Peşrev...).
Nosotros incluimos algunas piezas de este repertorio en nuestro programa para dar una visión más realista y global de la irrelevancia y el grado de integración de los músicos judíos en la comunidad otomana, formada de hecho por un gran número de etnias y nacionalidades (judíos, armenios, griegos, turcos, árabes, persas...).
Algunos de los nombres más importantes del colectivo de compositores judíos otomanos son:
Photos: Luís Polo
Museu del Call (Girona) August 5, 2010
Photo: Sotiris Bekas
Benicàssim, August 6, 2010
Photo: Sotiris Bekas
Marina de Cudeyo, August 14, 2010
Photo: Kontxi Díez/Fernando Diego
Sajazarra, August 15, 2010
Photo: Kontxi Díez