Sephardic Songs

You start playing Sarband’s 1994 Sephardic Songs. A woman’s voice, unaccompanied, strikes up a lament. But then, the kettle drums come in, and you enter a different world. A wonderful call-and-response begins, and you get four straight minutes of sheer exuberance. But they suddenly cut out and conclude with a melancholy choral work, as if awakening from a wondrous dream into cold hard reality. And all three are part the first track!

The story of Sephardi Jewry, also known as the Jewish community of Spanish and Portuguese heritage, is full of such contrasts. From the great expulsion of 1492 of which the opening Ea Judios cries, to the startling modernity and openness shown by the central depiction of of a woman having an affair, concluding with the church-influenced yet pastoral melancholy of Juan del Encina the “New Christian” priest. The Jews of Spain experienced both the highest of privileges and the lowest of persecutions during their thousand-year history, and their art shows this.

Yet there’s another side to Sephardi tradition. Unlike the enforced separations of the ghettoes of Italy or the Russian Pale of Settlement, the Jews of Spain were part of a great multiethnic culture of Christians, Jews and Muslims living together and (more or less) harmoniously. And no band is better suited to show this than Sarband, a medieval music ensemble featuring Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike performing music together.

We can see an example of this side of Sephardi culture on this album as well. A simple tune, less than a dozen notes long and a fourth in range, was adopted by Muslims, Christians, and Jews to their own words. From an Arabic folksong Qalbi bi-qalbi qalbi Arabi (Arabic for “my heart, oh my heart is the heart of an Arab”) the Jews of Spain wrote a Ladino song Rey don Alonso (honoring King Alfonso VI of León, who conquered Toledo and gave the Jews new privileges), as well as a Hebrew homophonic translation as Kol libi, kol libi, kol libi l’Avi (Hebrew for “All my heart, all my heart, all my heart is for my Father”) for secret “conversos” to hold on to their heritage under cover.

This fusion of cultures continues throughout this album, including classical Arabic poetry set to Spanish folk music, strange and possibly satirical fusions of Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words set in a classic motet form, solo lute music from little-known Italian composers, and an extended (over eleven minutes!) folk ballad called “Porke yorash” that seems to be impossible to find in recording online.

In the US, we often think of Judaism as an Eastern European thing, associated with Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of the Woody Allen type. Ashkenormativity is so accepted it has its own TVTropes page. It’s so standard Mel Brooks’ “Spanish Inquisition” song from History of the World, part I has Jewish characters IN SPAIN talking like stereotypical alter kockers. We need to face that. And an album like this, with is mishmash of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions in a classically Spanish way, achieves this goal. Sephardic Songs is altogether a great album for expanding your perspective on what is Jewish and what is global, and I recommend it.