Sephardic Song. (Arts and Letters)

By Cohen, Judith R. | Midstream, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Sephardic Song. (Arts and Letters)


Cohen, Judith R., Midstream


It's medieval--or is it? It's Spanish--or is it? It's Jewish--well, yes, it certainly is. But what makes it Jewish?

Sephardic music is really a complex of musics. Depending on how one interprets the term "Sephardic," it might refer to music of the Jews descended from those exiled from late 15th-century Spain and Portugal, or it may refer to the music of all Jews not categorized as Ashkenazic, even though such a large proportion of them would more accurately be designated "Mizrakhi"--or "Eastern," "Oriental."

For our purposes, the first, original sense is the one which will be used: Sephardim will be understood as those Jews descended by blood or by culture from those who left Spain and Portugal--Sefarad--before or at the time of the Expulsions (1492 from Leon and Castile, 1496-1497 from Portugal, 1498 from Navarra), or even afterwards, leaving as converted New Christians and resuming their Jewish identities where it was safer to do so. Nothing is simple, and, of course, many of them became assimilated into environments in which their Hispanic language eventually was lost, in Syria or in Amsterdam for example. But here we'll talk about those who at least until recently did maintain the language, including in their stories and songs.

Before we get to these songs, a brief look at the language is in order. Popular perception often sees it as some sort of "frozen medieval Spanish." In fact, it is neither frozen nor medieval, though it does preserve many archaic aspects of vocabulary and syntax that endear it to philologists. At the time of the Expulsion, there was not a single language known as "Spanish," so even if the language of the Sephardim were "frozen," it would have to have been so in many different forms. At the time of the Expulsions, Castilian was just emerging as the dominant language of what was becoming Spain. Catalan and Galician were the important literary languages, and the Jews who left spoke Castilian, Catalan, Galician, and/or whatever varieties of Andalusian Romance, Asturo-Leonese, and so on were common where they were living. Those from Portugal spoke Portuguese, and, if they had fled to Portugal from Spain, whatever they had spoken there. It is unclear to what extent Jews mixed Hebrew into their everyday spoken language. All this coalesced during the centuries of the Diaspora into a primarily written language, Ladino, and into many varieties of the vernacular, which were known by different names in different places.

Ladino, strictly speaking, is the word-for-word translation from Hebrew, as if one were to render "ha-laila hazeh" into English as "the night the this, "la noche la esta." This was done primarily to avoid the possibility of any errors; in the spoken language, people said "esta noche," "tonight." Ask a middle-aged Sephardic person who says he speaks "Ladino" whether his mother used the term and you are likely to hear, "No, at home we called it spaniol," or "No, at home we called it dzhidio" (the exact equivalent of "Yiddish," the "Jewish" language). Or "dzhudezmo." Or, in Morocco, "khaketia." The habit of calling all of these "Ladino" arose relatively recently, in the past couple of decades, originally as an error, and now such a widespread one that it is becoming the norm. Scholars and many others prefer the umbrella term "Judeo-Spanish," which includes all of these, and this term will be used from here on: if "Ladino" is used, it refers specifically to the literal translation from Hebrew described above.

A popular misconception is that Judeo-Spanish song is "medieval Sephardic," or "medieval Spanish" music. Jewish and Muslim musicians and scribes did not notate their music in the Middle Ages. (1) It is important to differentiate between the texts and the melodies of songs, and, in fact, between stories and sung texts: there is a tendency to confuse the origins of the words with the origins of the music. Very often, a song text, especially in the case of the romances (Hispanic narrative ballad) does in fact go back to the late Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, and/or its story goes back to much earlier epic poems and prose chronicles. …

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