La musique judéo-espagnole

Ensemble Generaldo
Judith Cohen

Judith Cohen

Dr Judith Cohen, est à la fois une musicienne, une musicologue et une universitaire.  Née à Montréal dans une famille ashkénaze et anglophone, elle possède un doctorat sur la musique des communautés spéharades au Canada de l’Université de Montréal. Elle enseigne à l’Université York de Toronto et donne diverses lectures et concerts sur la musique sépharade. Membre du fameux groupe Gerinaldo, elle nous raconte ici sa découverte de la musique sépharade.

Ambling happily through Fès one grayish winter day in January 1972, I was stopped by a young Moroccan, who asked me courteously, ”tu es juive?” “Oui,” I replied, bemused. “Well,” he said, “it’s Saturday morning, why aren’t you in a synagogue? Come, I’ll take you.” “Mais tu es juif, toi aussi?” I asked. ”No,” he answered, “I’m Muslim, but I thought you should go to the synagogue.” That’s how I learned there were Jews in Morocco.

A few months later, in May, I was wandering, bedazzled, through the Grand Bazar of Istanbul, after six days on the Turkish “Karadeniz” boat from Barcelona. A jeweller waved at me, calling “Shalom!”, then asked in Spanish whether I was Jewish. Even to my neophyte ears – I had acquired Spanish only recently, while teaching French in a Valencian village – his Spanish sounded unusual. “How come you’re speaking Spanish?” I asked. “Come to dinner with my family tonight and we’ll tell you.” That’s how I learned there were Jews in Turkey.

Ensemble Generaldo

Ensemble Generaldo

A year later, back in Spain, I hitch-hiked to Galicia, with a young Catalan school teacher who had picked me up in Aragón. At a friend’s party near Vigo, a Galician bagpiper said, “Oh, you’re Jewish and you speak Spanish! Give me your address and I’ll send you a cassette you’ll like.” Some months later, two cassettes arrived at my little apartment near McGill: one of Galician bagpipe tunes – and Joaquin Diaz’ first Sephardic cassette. And that’s how I first became interested in Sephardic songs.

Later in the 1970s, I continued to travel through Spain and Portugal, also Eastern Europe, hitch-hiking or taking local buses. Back in Montreal, I learned Balkan dances and songs, and performed traditional narrative ballads in English and French, Yiddish songs and medieval music. I began a Master’s in Medieval Studies at Université de Montréal, with a thesis on Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians in medieval Spain. In the library one fateful day, I noticed a new book on the poems of Avraham Bar Yoná, in Salonica. Fascinated, I wrote the author a fan letter, and was astonished when he responded with an annotated bibliography for my thesis, painstakingly typed on a manual machine. Only later did I realize how famous and revered Samuel G. Armistead (1927-2013) was. When I had completed the M.A., he said, “well, now you know medieval music, the Balkans, Turkey, Morocco, Spain and Portugal – you should do a doctorate in Sephardic music! And please look up my former student in Montreal, Oro Anahory-Librowicz.”

Oro happened to be searching for a musician who spoke Spanish to join her, Solly Lévy and Kelly (Raquel) Sultan Amar, to form a group to perform Moroccan Judeo-Spanish songs. I became a founding member of Gerineldo, and began a doctorate in ethnomusicology, at the Université de Montréal, completing my dissertation on Sephardic music in Canada in 1989. Oro and Solly’s internationally acclaimed work needs no introduction to readers of these pages, and I can’t over-estimate how much they both taught me, or how invaluable Gerineldo was as my “ethnomusicological participant observation” context.

Finding resource people in the Moroccan Sephardic community was not difficult. Bingo games at the Club Sépharade de l’Âge d’Or proved an unexpectedly fruitful terrain for song gathering, and my field recordings include “En la ciudad de Toledo, en la ciudad de Granada… j’ai le 69! Brigitte Bardot! Bingo!” But my naïve assumption that my dissertation would be balanced between Moroccan and former Ottoman area Sephardim quickly evaporated: unlike those in most American cities, Canadian communities included few Sephardim from Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Still, I did record several, notably Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle, who not only sang, but recounted her partisan activities during World War II, and Nina Șalom Vučković, whose journey had taken her from a well-to-do Sarajevo household to a Mohawk reservation in Quebec.

In the 1990s, I extended my research to the Crypto-Jews or Bnei Anusim, the so-called “Marranos”, in Portuguese villages. As well, I initiated ethnomusicological studies on the use of Sephardic music in Spain’s “medieval festivals of the three cultures”, and took academic “side trips” to publish articles on the women’s square drum in Spain and Portugal, and old and new music in the island of Ibiza, including Sephardic historical elements of both topics. I still return whenever possible to Morocco, the Balkans, Turkey and Israel, and in 2013 was invited to sing and teach Moroccan Sephardic songs in Larache.

In 2014, twenty years after our last concert, Gerineldo was unexpectedly invited to Paris for the Quinzaine du judaïsme marocain. Since then, we have given several other concerts, most recently at Montreal’s Festival Sefarad 2015. We miss original member Raquel “Kelly” Sultan Amar, with her beautiful voice and presence, and violin virtuoso Charly Edry, but are delighted that our new configuration encompasses three generations. My daughter Tamar Ilana has traveled and performed with me since she was tiny, and is now a professional singer of flamenco and other traditions. She occasionally sang with Gerineldo as a child, and now joins us as an adult, along with Solly’s grandson Matan Boker, who adds exquisite renditions of piyyutim. Demetrios Petsalakis joins us on oud and other instruments, playing the Moroccan Sephardic repertoire as if to the manner born.

Gerineldo’s focus is, of course, the traditional Moroccan Judeo-Spanish repertoire and style. In my own research, concerts and lectures, I also work with former Ottoman area traditions. Here, I will add just a few observations about the Judeo-Spanish repertoire. Its main genres are romances, life cycle and calendar cycle songs, and songs of love and other topics. The songs of this last group are usually relatively recent, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly “kantikas” from the former Ottoman lands, except for several witty northern Moroccan songs in haketía. Paradoxically, the kantikas are often romantically – and inaccurately – referred to as “ancient”, and often confused with romances. A romance is not a love song, but rather a narrative ballad, consisting of assonant paired lines in one of a few specific metric patterns. The oldest romances recount colourful, intricate tales, often traceable to pre-exilic Spain, but their melodies are from later periods. Some romances are specific to Morocco or the Ottoman regions; others are sung in both, with different melodies. (The word “romancero” is often used incorrectly: it is not a song, but a collection or corpus of romances.) Few people now sing romances, or the old wedding songs, whose pithy lyrics mix sincere devotion with mischievous double-entendres and driving rhythms. Calendar cycle songs, often combining Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew, fare somewhat better. Professional performers of Judeo-Spanish (“Ladino”) songs tend to sing mostly kantikas, often, though not always, presented as if they were ancient fossils. I focus on the “endangered species”, the older genres, and try to sing like the community women of my and colleagues’ field recordings. I often sing my research – Moroccan, Turkish, and Balkan Sephardic versions of the same ballad, and sometimes pan- European versions in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and French – in one case even old Flemish! and, returning to my family’s roots, Yiddish.

Much of my work in Balkan music, medieval music, and Spanish and Portuguese regional music, is connected to Sephardic culture in some way. My study of the women’s square frame drum, “adufe”, along the Spanish-Portuguese border, grew out of my fieldwork in Crypto-Jewish communities, and led me to illustrations of Miriam playing the adufe in fourteenth-century haggadot. As the editor/consultant for the recordings the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002) made in Spain in 1952, I was delighted to discover correspondence indicating that he sent Israel’s pioneer ethnomusicologist Edith Gerson-Kiwi (1908-1992) her first Moroccan Sephardic song collection, which he had been given by its author, Spanish musicologist Arcadio de Larrea Palacin (1907-1985).

I’m often asked, “what’s an Ashkenazi doing dedicating most of her professional life to Sephardic culture?” I’ve even been called “honorary Sephardic”, but only recently have questions surfaced about my Cohen grandfather, who passed away long before I was born, and my great-aunt “Shprintse.” This Yiddish name is adapted from the old Sephardic name “Esperança”, “Hope,” often found in Anusim families. So, perhaps my decades working with Sephardic culture have been due to more than felicitous happenstance. One way or another, it’s been a splendid journey these many years, and I look forward to more travels and discoveries in the many worlds of Sephardic culture.

Judith Cohen