Clearing up Ladino, Judeo-Spanish,

Sephardic Music 

By Judith Cohen

from HaLapid, Winter 2001

Over the past couple of decades, this music has enjoyed a timely and much-deserved renaissance. But there is a good deal of confusion about what it is called, how old it is, who sings it and how it should be sung. For Halapid readers, here is a general outline to try to clear this up.

The three terms in the title can be taken in order. Ladino is one aspect of Judeo-Spanish, which is one linguistic component of Sephardic culture. If we take all the terms literally, Sephardic, as most of you know, refers to the Jewish culture of the Iberian Peninsula, Sefarad, but over time has come to mean, basically non-Ashkenazi. This is, of course, inaccurate, but has become so widespread one has to accept it. Judeo-Spanish is a term coined as an umbrella term for all varieties of the spoken language of the descendants of the Jews of Sefarad, whether written, liturgical, or vernacular. Technically, the written, literal translation word-for-word from Hebrew, variant is the one called Ladino (e.g. “the night the this,” “la noche la esta” for “ha-laila ha-zeh,” as in the Haggadah, instead of “esta noche”). The spoken languages have different names: in Morocco, Khaketía and in the former Ottoman lands, Spaniol, Dzhidio, Dzhudezmo or Spaniol Muestro. Many people in their sixties and over will tell you that when they were young their families didn’t say they spoke Ladino, but rather Spaniol or one of the other terms. Like Sephardic, Ladino has become so popular and widespread that it’s probably the most common and most widely understood term for the language which is a lively and unique amalgam of early Castilian, Galician, Catalan, Portuguese, and variants from all over the Peninsula, with elements of Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, South Slavic languages, Moroccan Arabic, and more recently Italian, French, and even English and Yiddish. Please note that it’s not used for the vernacular language among Moroccan Sephardim and most scholars agree it’s incorrect. Also it has entirely different connotations in Central America.

Judeo-Spanish (as I will refer to it) has no one correct pronunciation. It’s pronounced differently, and has variants.The same goes for the songs, which can be heard with different tunes and different performance styles, depending where they’re sung and what generation is singing them.

How old are the songs? Well, it’s always a disappointment when people ask me about medieval Sephardic songs and I have to say, “Sorry, we don’t have any.” But that’s the way it is. The Jews and the Muslims chose not to write down their music for various reasons in the Middle Ages, so we simply do not have any medieval manuscript music notation of either Jewish or Arabic music (with the exception of a piyyut and a couple of fragments notated in the early twelfth century by a Norman priest who converted to Judaism; my daughter and I sing it on our new album, due out soon). Many of the songs in the Judeo-Spanish repertoire were composed after – often long after – the expulsions from Andalusia, Leon-Castile, Portugal, Aragón and Navarra. And for those which did exist before the expulsion – we just don’t know what tunes they were sung to. With music of oral tradition, one simply cannot make assumptions about dating melodies. So, this is not medieval music, it has a few traces here and there of Renaissance tunes, but for the most part one can’t say much about dating the melodies until the eighteenth century and for more certain dating not until the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jews have always been skilled at adapting the melodies and musical styles of their cultural surroundings, and Judeo-Spanish songs are no exception, whether the melody is from an eighteenth century Turkish tune, a nineteenth century Spanish ballad emigrating to Morocco, an Argentinian tango or a melody composed for the specific song. Presenting Judeo-Spanish songs as early music is by and large anachronistic.

There are different ways to classify the songs, depending on whether one goes by poetic structure, music, or function and context. The first classification systems usually gave the romance (narrative ballad) a category of its own, and then organized the rest according to context and function: calendar cycle, life cycle, love, recreation/topical songs. Lately, it is more common to see a very general classification by poetic structure: romances, coplas and canticas, with a small additional category of Ladino prayers. If we follow this system, each poetic structure can still be divided into function/context groups. The romance is usually sung, or at least was usually sung, in domestic contexts: lulling a child to sleep, embroidering, preparing meals, or in Morocco, sung by young girls on the swing (matesha) set up in the courtyard around Passover. But certain romances are also specific to weddings, and still others to mourning (endechas). The coplas are largely, but not exclusively, a para-liturgical genre – for example the Coplas de Purím, but they can also be on more general themes. Canticas can be all kinds of songs – wedding songs, more modern love and courtship or recreational/topical songs.

So, how do you know which is which? First, there is considerable confusion about romances and romanzas. And about romanceros. A romancero is not a song, it’s a collection of romances, just as a cancionero is a collection of canciones (songs). It can be a specific anthology, or refer to the corpus of romances in general, for example the Sephardic romancero as distinct from the Portuguese romancero. Not every love song is a romanza (the Ottoman-area term for romance) – most are in fact canticas, not romanzas (see my article “Romancing the Romance” in James Porter’s Ballads and Boundaries, for more on this question – I could only get that title in once in a publishing lifetime, along with one sub-section in the article I called Stalking the Wild Romance.) The classic romance, and there are exceptions, of course, has a very specific structure: an indefinite number of assonant lines, each composed of two groups of eight syllables. This means that at least in theory, any given romance tune can be used for any romance. And, in some cases, this is exactly what happens: the same tune is used for several different ballad texts. But some have their own tunes, and it’s never really clear why some do and some don’t share their melodies. (Count the syllables! El rey que muncho madruga, ande la reina se iba; Arboleras, arboleras, arboleras tan gentil – hint: “til” of gentil counts as two syllables).

So, let’s take some favourite songs and see where they go. How about Cuando el Rey Nimrod? Well, that takes us into another question – what are the titles of these songs? In classifying traditional songs, scholars try to go by agreed-upon titles, rather than incipits (first lines), because not everybody starts a song with the same incipit. So this song is officially called El Nacimiento y Vocación de Avraham (Abraham’s birth and vocation). Because it’s narrative, it’s often been classified as a romance, but actually it’s in the coplas form. Many, possibly most, of the songs made popular by Yehoram Gaon and other singers in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the first wave of popularity for Judeo-Spanish songs, are canticas, and modern canticas at that – Adio Querida, Arvoles Lloran por Luvias, Hija Mia Mi Querida and so on. (I’m a medievalist as well as an ethnomusicologist, so when I say modern it basically means nineteenth century and on). If one also classifies wedding songs as canticas, then there are two quite different types of songs in the same broad category, for many of the wedding songs are much older, especially the words, than the canticas about love, courtship, topical or recreational themes. And, like the romances, the old wedding songs are rarely heard these days – more often among Moroccan (again, like the romances) than among eastern Mediterranean Sephardim. Dize la muestra novia, Poco le dash, la mi consuegra, La novia destrenza el pelo and Ya salió de la mar la galana are a few. So which are the romances? Many recording artists have few or no romances on their albums. Among those which do make it onto familiar recordings, Tres hermanicas eran is a more modern tune for an older romance – which also has an older, more Middle-eastern tune than the one commonly heard. El rey que muncho madruga (Flory Jagoda’s Andarleto, formal title Landarico) is another; this is a very old story, going back to Merovingian times. Gerineldo, still popular among Moroccan Sephardim, and the name of my old performing ensemble, is another (I’ll never forget receiving an envelope addressed to Mr. Jerry Neldo one year.)

How are they sung? Big question for a small space. Some of this is, of course, personal taste. But by and large, it is NOT an art song, a concert stage repertoire. Except for the very serious romances or coplas, especially those reserved for serious or even lamenting occasions, recalling tragic events, they’re also not sung all that seriously – on many recordings they sound so solemn and portentous that their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them! They are people’s songs, like other folk repertoires, sung by people, for themselves and for other people, with other people. If they’re for weddings, they’re joyous and rhythmic – one has to make the bride and groom happy, and ready to, ah, multiply. And, people expect to dance to the songs. Last week, my daughter and I had the good luck to be called upon to sing Moroccan Judeo-Spanish wedding songs for a henna night, exactly so people could dance, while the bride’s hands were being painted with henna. This is not concert style – this is keep singing so people can keep dancing – and we did, one song after another, with the same driving tambourine and derbukka rhythms throughout. Often I’ve recorded elderly Sephardic women singing romances with endings involving heads cut off, tongues slashed out, or similarly gory dénouements with a relishing chuckle at the end – they know these are stories, and they sing them as such, not as solemn concertized arrangements. I’ve recorded them singing at Senior Citizens Bingo games – and often they’ll stop, when one sings a romance, leaning over toward her, commenting as she sings (I’m telling you, if MY daughter did such a thing...) – as if these were stories from modern soap operas instead of stories distilled from medieval chronicles. In the former Ottoman areas, the romances are – were – often sung in the old maqam modes, not duplicable on pianos or guitars or other instruments with fixed pitches, and some of their tunes were full of complex vocal ornaments. Few people can sing these today (see my discography on the web for specific names). Mostly, whether the tune is complex or simple, whether it’s a story or advice to the bride, they were sung in a comfortable vocal range, if anything, more typically on the low side than the high side, and in a style meant to communicate.

And instruments? Well, mostly the women sang Judeo-Spanish songs, and mostly they didn’t play instruments, except percussion for weddings. That’s largely because for the most part, their hands were too busy to play instruments, especially instruments which required hours of practicing. As always, there were exceptions. And, of course, this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have LIKED to play instruments and it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy hearing them with their songs when other people play them. Whether one uses Middle Eastern instruments, probabaly the most appropriate for most of the repertoire, or guitar (really only musically appropriate for the relatively recent songs), or Early Music replicas (not musically very relevant but people like the atmosphere) is inevitably a matter of taste. In practical concert terms, there’s a limit to how many songs an audience will enjoy a capella, especially in these busy technological days – but actually, I find myself singing more and more either a capella or with traditional hand percussion only.

One last note before leaving some space for other contributors to this issue. What about the Crypto-Jews? I won’t discuss those of the Americas at all, because I don’t know their cultures first-hand. But I do know many in Portugal, and have spent a good deal of time living with them, in different villages (including the famous and beleaguered Belmonte), in different areas of the country while conducting an ongoing ethnomusicology project over the past several years. They have very, very few songs which are not common to everyone else in the areas they live in. They do have a lot of prayers, and they RECITE (but don’t sing) these, as well as recite certain Old Testament ballads as prayers (Jonah and the Whale, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the Lion’s Den), always in Portuguese. In fact, they really have only two specific songs, besides a Portuguese translation made for them of Hatikvah. One is sung at Passover, and is the Crossing of the Red Sea – an old theme, an old text, but with a melody no older than the late nineteenth century. The other is also relatively new, probably about the same vintage, and is a narrative song about an imagined impoverished Jewish troubadour and his beloved, with a happy ending. As well, they have learned a number of songs over the years, since their discovery in the first decades of the twentieth century - from visiting rabbis and other Jews (including myself), from tapes left for them, lately from CD’s, and so on. Finally, they do sing some songs from the regional culture, occasionally, especially during Passover, giving certain ones their own meaning. When they do sing romances found in the Sephardic repertoire it doesn’t mean these romances are Sephardic in origin; it just means they’ve been preserved over the centuries both on the Peninsula and in the Sephardic diaspora. Clearly, they must have sung many of the items they now recite at some point, but even women in their nineties whom I interviewed recited rather than sang these specific prayers and Biblical ballads, and not because of their age, as they did sing other, local melodies. Perhaps it’s simply that during the centuries when secrecy was paramount to survival, it would have been folly to use different melodies from everyone else’s, whereas reciting was easier to conceal, and softly changing the words to known tunes, or simply sharing a different meaning, also easier to hide than melodies which would set them apart.

I may have ended up raising more questions than I’ve answered – but for millenia of Jewish history – what else is new?! Hope to meet those of you I don’t know yet soon. Sanos y buenos (as the Moroccan Sephardim say).

Judith Cohen is a well known musicologist and performer of Sephardic Music. 

Her website can be found at:   http://www.yorku.ca/judithc/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Society For Crypto Judaic Studies