Sefardim

180 gram black vinyl in gatefold sleeve with lyrics and english translation.

Melodic fragments from medieval Spain with a Judaeo-Spanish version of a Turkish sharki. An Argentinian tango adapted to the dervish tradition. Orthodox church rites in Turkey meet an Andalusian secular repertory in Morocco.

Sefardim is a compilation of popular romansas (love ballads) by ladino-speaking Jews in Istanbul. Forced out of the Iberian Peninsula by the end of the 15th century, the music of the Sephardim survived 500 years in exile and greatly influenced Turkish Art Music. Janet and Jak Esim are accompanied by fretless guitar virtuoso Erkan Oğur and percussion maestro Okay Temiz. They have meticulously collected songs, melodies and lyrics from the last ladino speakers alive.

Liner Notes (by Julia Strutz)

The Sephardim

At the end of the 15th century many Jews left Spain and Portugal for the Ottoman Empire, fleeing a century of religious persecution, anti-Jewish violence and forced conversion. In Istanbul, these Sephardim (as they called themselves) quickly outnumbered the resident Jewish community with a new population of about 30,000 (Rozen 2002: 51). They constituted one of the largest communities of Sephardim in the Eastern Mediterranean. Into the local Jewish community, the newcomers brought a new language, ladino, which has its roots in Spanish. As differences between the Jewish congregations in Istanbul vanished in the decades and centuries following their arrival, ladino came to be identified as the language of the Istanbuli Jewish community as a whole.

Often considered a mystic “medieval” or “antique” musical tradition, the idea that the music of the Sephardim survived unchanged in a 500-year old diaspora is improbable. There was no unified Sephardic musical tradition even before the Sephardim were forced out of the Iberian Peninsula. After the dispersion, there were at least two distinct musical styles: North-Moroccan and Ottoman. Jews who migrated to the Ottoman Empire shared the musical system of modal/microtonal intervals (makams) with already established musical traditions, while this did not occur in the Moroccan context (Cohen 2010). It is hard to say how the music sounded then or evolved thereafter, as there was no transcription before the mid-19th century. More often than not, the efforts to preserve Sephardic music transcribed it, as did the Izmiri Sephardic Composer Alberto Hemsi (1898-1975), using Western notation and for Western instruments like the piano.

Sephardic music and Türk Sanat Müziği

The music of the Sephardim is modal like Turkish Art Music (Türk Sanat Müziği), which means it uses diatonic scales that are not necessarily in major or minor keys, and is sung monophonically. Both traditions have influenced each other over the centuries. Many important Sephardic musicians were central to the development of Ottoman court music such as Isaac Fresco Romano (aka Tamburi Izak), who was the chief musician of the 18th-century Sultan Selim III’s court. Sephardic synagogue singers, cantors or hazanim, were also well-versed in the Turkish makams. Even today, liturgical singing, which is usually done in Hebrew, is largely based on classical Turkish music (Cohen 2008).

One could argue that the Sephardic musical tradition was concretized in the early twentieth century with the advent of recording, musical notation and the mass production and proliferation of music on record. The first record company in Turkey was actually the Jewish-owned “Bresler”, founded in 1910, which published a lot of music for the Turkish-Sephardic market (Cohen 2010), further proving the continuing connection between the music of the Sephardim and Turkish Art Music.
As the ethnomusicologist Seroussi expresses it:


“Residues of melodies of medieval Spanish romances may be sung in a single breath by the same informant followed by a Judaeo-Spanish translation of a Turkish sharki or an Argentinian tango. A cantor, in the same service in the synagogue, may combine venerable old melodies which might carry vestiges from a pre-Expulsion repertory with tunes adopted from the dervish or Orthodox church rites in Turkey, or from the Andalusian secular repertory in Morocco”.

(Seroussi 1991: 204)
Romansas

The songs included on this record are all romansas, which are popular love songs or ballads. Traditionally, romansas were sung by women in non-religious contexts, e.g., during housework or childcare. The distinction between the male religious repertoire and the female repertoire of songs for the profane has diminished, as the survival of the tradition outside or inside the synagogue outweighs religious gender roles. With the numbers of the Istanbuli Jewish community dwindling after the foundation of Israel in 1948, and an increasingly anti-semitic nationalism in Turkey, now romansas are not likely to be experienced at home but more in formal settings like choirs or recordings such as the work of the Esims.

Janet and Jak Esim: Musicians and Archivists

Janet and Jak Esim not only sing the music of the Sephardim, but have also collected their songs since the late 1980s. As Jak Esim stated in 2005:

“About 12 years ago I started to collect this music first from my own family and then from hundreds of old people. I came to the conclusion that we have to analyse this music as modal music, to re-evaluate the majority of an archive of about 3000 romansas and sharkis and more than 2500 liturgical songs, so that they include again the microtonal intervals of the makam.”

Antik bir Hüzün [CD-ROM], translation by the author

Recording his grandfather who sang at family gatherings when he was about ten, Jak reports to have secretly recorded synagogue services where on the Shabbat electronic devices are usually strictly banned. It is only for his efforts that we have recordings of the extraordinary voice of Cantor Hazan Rebi Isak Maçoro, who led the prayer in several synagogues in Istanbul for over 50 years. But Jak also undertook what he calls “compilation”: meeting with the old generation in retirement homes or in their houses to sing the songs and recall them together. His prime informants are Berta Bienvenuda Aguado and Raşel Levi.

These recordings by Janet and Jak were done in collaboration with some of the most prolific, accomplished and popular musicians of Turkey: master of the fretless guitar and the oud, Erkan Oğur, the world-renowned percussionist, Okay Temiz, Tarik Sezer on cello and keyboard and Cem İkiz on guitar.

Çekirdek Sanat Evi

Çekirdek Sanat Evi was founded in 1982, and developed what could be defined as the venue for modern folk music in Turkey. The performances of many famous musicians and bands like Fikret Kızılok, Erkan Oğur, Bülent Ortaçgil, Yeni Türkü, Cem İkiz or Ezginin Günlüğü were recorded and produced there, and subsequently distributed with characteristic hand-made cassette covers. Jak Esim performed at the Çekirdek Sanat Evi from the onset and Erkan Oğur is the co-producer of this record. So, while Jak and Janet’s music may represent what is considered a “minority” in Turkey, as musicians they are right in the middle of this vibrant musical community.

The album

The songs released on this LP have been published before on CD by Birger Gesthuisen’s German world music label Feuer&Eis as “Sefardim 1. Songs of Spanish Jews from Turkey”. The compilation won the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in 1992.

The opening song “Una Tadre De Enverano” is the only song from Morocco on this LP. The song tells the story of a Spanish caballero who meets a “Moorish” girl. They decide to leave for Spain and thoughout the song they realize that they are not lovers but brother and sister.

Jak’s informant, an old woman from the sea-side neighboordhood Kuzguncuk, only remembered the first verse of “Ay Manas tururururu” together with the melody. To complete the song, he added popular ladino proverbs.

“Tres Klavinas” is a very popular popular song. The Turkish chorus “Aman minnuş minnuş, kuzum minnuş” appears in many songs of different genre including for instance the eponymous song by Ahmet Kaya.

“Ay Dos Anyos” is a lament for impossible love, deception and suffering. Jak learned this song from an old man in the Jewish Home for the Aged in the district Hasköy in Istanbul. The neighbourhood used to be one of the centres of Jewish life in the city.

The lyrics of “Ni Pudra Yeva Ni Kolor” have more of a contemporary feel. A man does not dare to date a woman that dresses “how her mother has given birth to her”, unadorned, with a “wild look”.

Three songs in this compilation have been preserved by Izmir-born Sephardim. “Ija Miya Mi Kerida” and “Yo Era Ninya” are taken from the 1958 collection “Chants Judeo-Espagnol” of Ishak Levy, who was born near Izmir and was programme director the Ladino section of the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. His successor as programme director at the radio station Moshe Shaul, has published “Por Amar Una Donzea” in the ladino-language journal Aki Yerushalayim.

Jak learned the lullaby “Durme Durme” from his grandfather. A Spanish television team requested to record a little clip of this song that would include a woman and a baby that she is putting to sleep. Jak asked Janet, and it is because of this song that Janet joined the ensemble in 1989.

“Esta Parea ke viene” talks about a flirt between a male and a female worker at the “Régie” cigarette factory in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Cibali. Opened in 1884, the “Régie” was not only the biggest factory in the city at the time, it also employed the largest number of female workers.

References:

Rozen, Minna. 2002. A History of the Jewish Community in Istanbul. The Formative Years, 1453-1566. Leiden: Brill.
Cohen, Judith R. 2008. “‘En Estanbul Avia’: Judeo-Spanish Music in Past, Present and Future Istanbul.” In Música, Ciudades, Redes: Creación Musical e Interacción Social. Actas Del X.
Cohen, Judith R.. 2010. “Judeo-Spanish Song: A Mediterranean-Wide Interactive Tradition.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música, no. 14: 1–8.
Seroussi, Edwin. 1991. “Between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean: Sephardic Music after the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal.” Mediterranean Historical Review 6 (2): 198–206.

Thanks

We would like to thank Judith Cohen for her generous help with helping us navigate the extensive literature on the music of the Sephardim. We also feel indebted to Karen Şarhon at the Sephardic Centre in Istanbul who supported us with some of the translations of the lyrics.