The jewel case cover of the 2016 recording by a well-respected baroque orchestra is indeed evocative. A panorama of mosques rises out of the sand of medieval Cairo in earthy tones and we see the outlines of covered Muslim women carrying ceramic vessels on their heads as they disappear into a dusty sunset. Faux-Arabic letters proclaim “A Sephardic Journey.”
The recording itself contains some nicely-performed choral works of the Italki (not Sephardic) baroque composer Salamone Rossi, along with some 20th century Ottoman Ladino folk songs mistakenly called romanzas arranged for baroque instruments. The orchestra markets the recording in equally colorful language:
“Cast out of Jerusalem [Sic. Sephardic Jews were never expelled from Jerusalem], cast out of Spain. The Spanish Jews in their travels absorbed the colorful musical accents of Italy, Turkey and North Africa, including exotic percussion.”
The reviews in major music periodicals are similar. Bachtrack.com writes:
“The spirit and sound of the music could have come straight out of a Middle Eastern bazaar, mixed with spices ranging from ancient prayer.”
I am a professional classical musician and teacher. I am also of Balkan Sephardic descent and perform traditional Judeo-Spanish music across the United States and Europe. As a part of my research, I study this phenomenon as well as engage both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians on how to interpret Sephardic repertoire. This is the first of what will become a series on Sephardic music in the modern soundscape.
So, why would an otherwise fine baroque orchestra that prides itself on historical authenticity spend the time and resources to make a woefully inaccurate studio recording and concert tour based on a musical idiom that neither the large majority players nor the director knows, or have studied in any depth, with a virtual absence of any Sephardic representation in terms of artists?
The easy answer is Exoticism sells — but there is more than simple market economics at play when it comes to how many organizations outside the Sephardic community portray Sepharadim through music.
When we speak about the exoticism of Orientalism, we usually think of the Exoticism of Place- that is, that the focus on the exotic is geographic in nature. Sephardic Jews are exotic and oriental because they come from exotic and oriental places; The Ottoman Empire, North Africa, the greater Middle East, and Spain.
But often, when dealing with us Sephardic Jews, there is also the Exoticism of Time.
Our communities were expelled from late 15th century Spain — a time quite different- and Other- from 2018 in the popular imagination. Sepharadim, after all, speak Judeo-Spanish, a language that retains many archaic features. In true romanzas from the oral tradition, many texts date to pre-Expulsion Europe. This allure of antiquity combined with geography proves irresistible.
In fact, no melodic material from pre-Expulsion Spain survives in the secular repertoire, and that is exactly where it is all too easy to build an imagined Sepharad. Judeo-Spanish melodies are either recent compositions or are contrafacta — where an existing text is set to an unrelated melody that the Sepharadim encountered in the diaspora. Beginning in the 1950s, Sephardic music, often taken from incomplete or problematic sources, became labelled increasingly as “medieval,” often at the expense of vibrant oral traditions, erasing living composers and communities as authors. The songs are then presented out of their maqam contexts, often accompanied by reconstructed medieval or Renaissance instruments or miscellaneous exotica. The archivist Joel Bresler, founder of Sephardicmusic.org, quotes Prof. Judith Cohen:
“To recap, the group started with a version…intentionally stripped clean of traditional Sephardic performance practices, then re-imagined the songs as they thought they might have been performed. As Professor Judith R. Cohen has noted, ‘Many of the groups performing Sephardic music have ignored the living tradition and have chosen to re-invent a ‘historical’ one.'”
In 2011, I decided to test this theory; How long would it take for a new composition to become “medieval?”
I wrote and anonymously self-published a Judeo-Spanish language song in the traditional Balkan idiom. It took only four months for an early music festival to program it as “Anonymous, 15th-century Spanish” when in fact it was written in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Perhaps the most extreme manifestations of this come from Sepharad itself. Spanish public and private organizations have recently embraced the country’s Jewish heritage, culminating in the Law of Sephardic Return passed in 2015. A veritable tourism industry, however dubious, has flourished around Spain’s Jewish history. This is complicated by the fact that the tour-able Jewish footprint in Spain was largely destroyed in the fires of centuries of Inquisition, leading to an explosion of alternative histories, spurious monuments, and invented traditions. This has spilled over into the music of Spain and Hispanic countries in the Americas. I have interviewed several Spaniards and New World Spanish-speakers claiming to have Jewish ancestry, offering as proof claims their grandmothers sang to them Ochos Kandelikas, passed down in the family for generations. This is impossible, of course, seeing that Ochos Kandelikas was written by Flory Jagoda in the United States, in 1983.
We are a vibrant diaspora, and not a relic for a musical cabinet de curiosité
How are Sepharadim to react to this orientalization and exploitation of our musical heritage? I can speak personally here. I first reacted with fascination, quickly followed by hurt, indignation, anger, and resentment, which led to some accusatory polemic. Some (but not all) of which, being older and wiser, I see was not the best approach. As I grew in my musical studies, I began employing a softer method. If, as a community, we react as I once rightly and understandably did, I fear we may isolate ourselves and discourage interest in those potentially interested in helping us preserve our culture or wishing to learn about our history through our music.
First, however, it is incumbent upon those individuals and organizations who desire to explore the music of the Sephardic diaspora to be honest in their relationship with the music, and by extension, with us. We are a vibrant diaspora, and not a relic for a musical cabinet de curiosité. To honestly connect with this repertoire, one must first engage and collaborate with the people to whom music is such a crucial factor in the conception of communal identity. If one fails to do this, the result will inevitably be exploitive. It is equally incumbent upon us Sepharadim to treat those who are curious about our music with courtesy, and to start a meaningful conversation and to assume their motives are in good faith.
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