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Fusion Music part I - Saturday, March 17, 2018

Blog post 180310 for owlsong.com
Sephardic Treasures
History and Culture
By Alan Lewine

1. Fusion Music Part I

As Los Owlsong, Ana María Ruimonte and I have been working on discovering, adapting and arranging Sephardic songs for our Sephardic Treasures (Tesoros Sefardíes) project for a few years now. Neither of us are Sephardic Jews. But consider my background as a North American of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and hers as a Spanish Madrileña (raised Catholic Madrid, Spain, but with probably some Sephardim in her forgotten ancestry). We figure that combined we are “virtual” Sephardi.

Then Ana María realized that Ladino the Judeo-Spanish language of most of the Sephardic secular songs we were studying, was understandable to her as a native Spanish speaker. She said it reads very old-fashioned, with some odd language, but the meaning was clear. Or as clear as poetry ever is. I think it’s comparable to Shakespeare for a modern American – archaic and sometimes hard to understand, but not totally foreign like older writers such as Chaucer seem.

Where did we find the tunes we chose? A few from recordings by people like Jordi Savall and Eduardo Paniagua. Most from a few books we found and bought in Spain and the U.S. These books are the publications of the musicologists who took on the mission of discovering and transcribing the old music remembered by the Sephardic diaspora.

A little history:

In 1492, when the Reyes Católicos, known to Americans as the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, finally completed the reconquest of Spain from the Arabic-speaking Muslim Moors, they issued an order providing that within four months (only!) all Jews in Spain (there were probably at least hundreds of thousands) had to convert, leave without any possessions, or die. This was a bonanza for the monarchs’ depleted treasury as they bought a lot of stuff at fire sale prices of those intending to leave. Many converted, or pretended to. Many died after torture and were burned at the stake. Today, Spain is not proud of this time, but the Jews thrived in Spain for centuries after they were expelled from England, Germany, France and most of the rest of Europe.

Meanwhile, the Jews that left scattered throughout the more-tolerant early Ottoman Empire around the Mediterranean. Perhaps it is not coincidence that Columbus commenced his first mission of discovery at the same time. Her had many Jews, mostly Catholic converts (conversos) or crypto-Jews pretending to be converts. As the Spanish church’s inquisition increased its power and reach, many of the remaining conversos and crypto-Jews hit the road as well through the 16 th and 17 th centuries.

Skipping ahead, in the early 20 th century, musicologists became interested in the origins of modern music and the remainders of ancient music. Many traveled through north Africa, the middle east and the Balkans which formed the Ottoman Empire and where Sephardic culture had survived. The old songs had been retained in an women’s oral tradition The songs were
passed from mother to daughter and reflected their lives. The musicologists transcribed approximations of the melodies (sometimes in multiple versions) and the lyrics – generally in Ladino, sometimes in Hebrew or Arabic and commented on the setting in which the singers lived. Some of their work was published in book form and thus we found it.

Look for more entries in this series as I begin my studies and try to share some of what I learn.

 
Fusion Music part II - Saturday, March 17, 2018

Blog post 180310 for owlsong.com
Sephardic Treasures
History and Culture
By Alan Lewine

2. Fusion Music part II

In the last post I gave a basic description of our project Sephardic Treasures or Tesoros Sefardíes and introduced a bit about where we found the musical source material. Largely through the publications of musicologists that traveled through the Ottoman Empire in the early 20 th century and the same territories of the by-then former Ottoman Empire in the mid 20th century. This is where many of the Jews had settled after they were forced out of Spain in 1492, ironically a date that we Americans all know well.

Ana Maria and I began to work through the musicologists’ books as our primary source since we wanted to take an original approach rather than rely and be influenced by the recordings out there. We chose songs that appealed to us and that we thought we could adapt after our own fashion.

We finally achieved a critical mass of material that we liked to go into the studio a few months ago. I was motivated to work up arrangements that reflected both our backgrounds. After all, I figured, nobody really knows what the songs sounded like when they were performed in the Sephardic communities of Spain during the XII-XV centuries. But I bet the musicians then, as they do now, wanted to be hip, to excite their listeners and build an audience so they could get paid enough to feed their families and pay their various rents, banalities, tithes etc.

So I decided it would be fun to invent musically modern arrangements and settings for these medieval songs drawing on both of our backgrounds. Ana María Ruimonte is a conservatory-trained classical soprano and mezzosoprano and opera singer from Spain. My background is mostly as a jazz musician, having worked in every style associated with that word as well as blues, a bit of Afro-pop and Indonesian (Balinese-style) gamelan (really!).

So, when you hear us perform, and when we finally release the CD and its tracks, you will hear a unique fusion of jazz, classical, Spanish flamenco and North African/Middle Eastern rhythms. An odd combination? Perhaps. But we like it and hope you do too.

So, with that going on, I got interested in understanding where and from what context the music originated. Where did the medieval Spanish Jewish community come from? What were their lives and culture like? What was the context in which these melodies and lyrics arose?

You might be curious too.

Look for more entries in this series as I begin my studies and try to share some of what I learn. Let me know your thoughts

 

 







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Ana María Ruimonte 2 - click for hires Ana María Ruimonte - click for hires Soprano Meets Contrabass - postcard version click for hires Soprano Meets Contrabass 2 - click for hires Alan Lewine 8x10 - click for hires
Ana María Ruimonte
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Ana María Ruimonte
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Soprano Meets Contrabass
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Soprano Meets Contrabass
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Alan Lewine
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