La Yave, the Key to Sephardic Music

by Judith R. Cohen

album cover La Yave, the Key to Sephardic Music
Fréa Records, a Division of Music and Words
P.O. Box 1160
3430 BD Nieuwegein
the Netherlands

Introductory notes by Jan Waas.

The album notes begin with a brief introduction, including predictable references to the 1492 Expulsion, and nostalgia for the Golden Age of Jews in medieval Iberia; it also includes a couple of mystifying observations, such as Granada having been a "completely Jewish town", which is at best overstating the case. The inadequate notes to the songs themselves suggest an interest in anthologizing untempered by any real understanding of the repertoire, or of the terms "Ladino" and "Judeo-Spanish".

Like most anthologies, this one is uneven. No anthology can include everything, but it would be interesting to know what the selection criteria were (besides a focus on Dutch and central European artists, in itself not unwelcome). The Moroccan Judeo-Spanish repertoire is under-represented - only one Moroccan Judeo-Spanish song, and nothing by Gerineldo, the main ensemble specialized in the repertoire. Also, not one Spanish artist, or anthology, for that matter, is represented; one would think that such nostalgia for lost Spain might lead to the inclusion of at least one of several singers from the "home country" currently recording Judeo-Spanish songs. For example, Joaquín Díaz, who really started off the Judeo-Spanish song wave in Spain (after Sofía Noel and Victoria de los Angeles, but his is a more accessible style, which caught on).The inimitable Berta/Bienvenida Aguado, probably the best living exponent of the old Turkish Judeo-Spanish repertoire, and easily available on Inédit, is herself a "key", and should be here. The omission of Voice of the Turtle is interesting, also of the Pasharos Sefardis, Françoise Atlan, Sabina Yannatou, and others - not that I necessarily think they should have - or could have - been included, but I would be curious to know why they're not. That said, there are other singers one is (or I am) just as happy not to see here, and there are some interesting and well-chosen selections,though overall the "key" may not be the one which best fits the lock. Song by song:

  1. "La Jave de Espanja," Flory Jagoda, Bosnia/United States. The obvious choice, for the metaphoric, emblematic title, and for Flory Jagoda's crucial role in the whole Judeo-Spanish song "movement". It's always a pleasure to hear/re-hear Flory. Using the Balkan orthography for "y" ("Jave", "Espanja" for "Yave", Espanya") is confusing and should be avoided; in fact a note about orthography should have been included.

  2. "Nani," Shura Lipovsky of Ensemble Antequera, the Netherlands. Nice clean vocals, though not particularly Sephardic sounding, and a very welcome a capella rendition.

  3. "Xinanay," Michèle Baczynsky and Talita Koumi, Belgium. Presented as a "cruel children's song" . They muddy the perfectly discernible Turkish 9/8 (2,2,2,3) rhythm, and make more out of the song than it is, with dark, rather messy vocals and self-important drumming perhaps meant to be dramatically sinister - if it's a children's song, why not just present it that way? Cruelty, as we all know, is no stranger to kids' lyrics, but often as not isn't meant to be taken literally (shades of Shel Silverstein "You're Always Welcome in our House"?) Again, the orthography is misleading; though it's spelled with an "x" in the Levy anthology, using "sh" is more helpful; either way, the singer pronounces it incorrectly, with unvoiced "s" instead of "sh".

  4. "Durme, doncella," Yiladi Trio, the Netherlands. An unremarkably un-sephardic rendition,with irrelevant instrumentation; rather boring, perhaps included because it's Dutch and this is a Dutch recording? In that case, another selection by Lipovsky might be preferable.

  5. "Por la tu puerta" (Gülpembe), Jak and Janet Esim and Ensemble, Istanbul. A well-known Turkish Judeo-Spanish song by Jak and Janet Esim, a Turkish Sephardic couple from Istanbul. As in many of their renditions, this is accompanied by some very good Turkish folk and jazz musicians, sometimes overinstrumentalized, but they are among the few performers of Judeo-Spanish songs from a local community, even though they sing mostly the relatively modern songs, like their "older brother" ensemble, Pasharos Sefardís, who, if only one group from Turkey is included, ought to have been here. The vocals are agreeable, if not inspired, and it's a relief not to hear the brief Turkish refrain mis-pronounced.

  6. "Salgash madre," Ruth Yaakov Ensemble, Israel. A refreshing and often very successful approach to capturing the typical vocal timbre, low but pentrating tessitura and ornamentation of Balkan Sephardic women singers, sometimes a bit overdone but at least along the right lines. The first stanza is sung a capella, then Middle Eastern strings and percussion - unfortunately, the typical group percussion played by women, which would accompany the song, is not used on this recording; and the taksim which follows the a capella stanza is an unlikely way to begin a series of lively women's wedding songs - but it's solid, idiomatic instrumental accompaniment. The notes do not explain (nor do they, in fact, in the original album) that this is not one, but a series of wedding songs, as was typical when they were sung in context. The other songs are "Ay que relumbror" ;"Ni sos alta ni morena"; and "Ay novia de grande estilo".

  7. "El Rey que muncho madruga," Alhambra, U.S.A./Amsterdam. This ballad, "Landarico", whose story (not music, though) goes back to the Merovingian Dynasty, is one of the few romances still sung in both Moroccan and ex-Ottoman area Judeo-Spanish, as well as occasionally (very occasionally) on the Iberian Peninsula (all with very different melodies). Ganz' sophisticated, highly-trained Western art music vocal style applied to Sephardic songs is a matter of taste; whatever one's preferences, she continues to take her research on the repertoire seriously, and to seek out fine musicians. Personally, I've always disliked gratuitous recitation in the middle of a ballad - why do this? When Sephardic women recite a ballad, it's usually because they've forgotten the tune, or can't sing for whatever reason (often simply advanced age), or they or the researcher decide it's too long - but they recite quickly and efficiently, not as a performance. The growled male recited bit at the end is, mercifully, very short.

  8. "La vida do por el raki," Judy Frankel, U.S.A.. One of the repertoire's most inexplicably popular songs, a rather insipid melody carrying a text about the joys of drinking raki; probably not the best example of Frankel's singing, which has become very popular over the past decade.

  9. "Día de Shabbat," Lena Rothstein, Germany (?) Unremarkable, rather on the sweet-precious side.

  10. "La muerte de Roldán," Alicia Benassayag, Morocco/Israel. Probably the best living traditional singer of the old Moroccan Judeo-Spanish repertoire ; the choice here is a romance from the old repertoire, very seldom heard.

  11. "La huérfana del prisionero," David Saltiel, Salónica. I've reviewed the Saltiel recording elsewhere: he's the last living exponent of the early 20th century Salonica Judeo-Spanish tradition. By his time, people rarely sang old romances of the type sung by Benassayag any more, in Salonica, and his repertoire reflects this. A bit overdone on the instrumentals, but it's a centrally important CD. This song is more generally known as "Yedi Kule".

  12. "Ir me quiero a Yerushalayim, Ir me quiero yo por este caminico, Libi be'Misrach," Jalda Rebling, Germany. "Libi b'Misrach" is the famous poem by Yehuda haLevy, recited here presumably because it fits the theme, but it doesn't add to musical content. And, sigh, a terribly dramatic recitation of the usually beautiful song "Ir me quiero". Agreeable enough, though rather bland, vocals; nice instrumentals though the repetition gets to be, well, repetitive.

  13. "Bendigamos," Lija Hirsch and Gertru Pasveer, the Netherlands. A great deal is made of the fact that the pronunciation was "explicitly" taught to them by an Istanbul "Ladino" speaker - that's nice, but for one thing, the Amsterdam Jews didn't live in Istanbul, and for another, why should this be so astonishing as to merit three lines of text - shouldn't it be normal to ask a native speaker for pronunciation help? A too-serious rendition of what I've always thought was a boring melody - the fact that it's Sephardic does not automatically confer any special musical aesthetic status,though I guess it's a good document to have on an anthology. At least the unrelentingly Western melody gets a matching unrelenting Western harp accompaniment, preferable in timbre to these vocals.

  14. "Song for the brith mila," (sic) Yacoub b'Chiri, Djerba, Tunisia. From the splendid, not-enough-known Djerba (island belonging to Tunisia) tradition, completely unrelated to the rest of the repertoire on this album, but it's good to hear it and perhaps will move people to seek out more of it, and other recordings of tradtional Jewish music from North Africa.

  15. "Kochav Tsedek," Emil Zrihan, Morocco/Israel. Together with (14) , this is far from the repertoire featured in the album - neither really has anything to do with Spain (there were Jews in Morocco long before the Expulsions). Zrihan has received deserved attention over the past few years, and while he may not be the most representative of Moroccan Sephardic cantors, he is certainly worth listening to.

  16. Ladino medley - "Yo m'enamori, Abre este abajour, Adio/Los Bilbilicos," Eli Mellul, Morocco/U.S.A. The notes say "turning them (i.e. the songs) into rai". Rai? This is like rai?? Hey, please, rai is great stuff! This is more like rye than rai - with a generous dose of misplaced saccharine. The notes call the selections "highly popular romances" - popular they are, but they are certainly not "romances". The notes also don't explain why the Moroccan Mellul ignores the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish heritage and sings the most top-tennish of the TTT (Tired Top Ten) Eastern Mediterranean "Ladino" canon - which was not sung in Morocco; then again, my fondness for the Moroccan repertoire makes me relieved that he's spared it his attentions.

to top of page To top of page

the KlezmerShack   Ari's home page 

to About the Jewish-music mailing list
to The Klezmer Shack main page
to Ari Davidow's home page

Thank you for visiting:
Copyright © 1999 Judith R. Cohen. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
This page is maintained by Ari Davidow. Send me E-mail with any comments or suggestions. All rights reserved. Last revised 15 April, 2006.