Blog post 180310 for owlsong.com
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.