Sephardic Music in Morocco
The Jews of Morocco left a legacy of traditional ballads of courtly love, lullabies and biblical songs sung in medieval Spanish when they emigrated to Israel. The combinations of these melodies are what musicians and music appreciators refer to as Sephardic music.
While it is uncertain what Jews were singing in Iberia, it is certain that within Jewish culture, music has always played an important part of everyday life. Unfortunately, there are no available records of the music Jews played or who sang the songs. As a result, historians and musicologists are unable to trace the exact history and origins of Sephardic music. Thus, Sephardic music has always been an oral tradition.
Sephardic music was born in medieval Spain, with cantigas being performed at the royal courts. Iberian Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. As a result, Sephardic music dispersed around the globe picking up outside influences. Since then, it has picked up influences from across Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece and various popular tunes from Spain and further abroad. There are three types of Sephardic songs — topical and entertainment songs, romance songs and spiritual or ceremonial songs. Lyrics can be in several languages, including Hebrew for religious songs, and Ladino.
These song traditions spread from Spain to Morocco (the Western Tradition) and several parts of the Ottoman Empire (the Eastern Tradition) including Greece, Jerusalem, the Balkans and Egypt. Sephardic music adapted to each of these locales, assimilating North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode.
What makes Sephardic music interesting is the same element that makes it so complicated. The Jewish Sephardic musical traditions were carried with the Jews as migrated throughout the world and musical experts still argue whether or not Sephardic music is as representative of its Jewish roots as some believe. There are three schools of thought:
Sephardic Music: Three Schools of Thought
v A highly common argument is that while Iberian Jews moved to new lands, Sephardic music also assimilated and was affected by its new environment. Following their expulsion in Spain, Iberian Jews planted themselves in the Ottoman Empire, Italy, France, England, Germany and what was then considered the Low Countries. In the seventeenth century, some Jews moved to English and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, India, South America and later, the United States and Canada. With each relocation, their music absorbed aspects of the music of their new home. Proof that Sephardic music adapted to each of these locales is the North African high-pitched extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode that is heard in Sephardic music today.
v Another concept is that due its multi-layered international influence, Sephardic music played today bears no resemblance to the music of the Sephardic Jews before they left Iberia. One problem is that even before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Spain was invaded by varying cultures from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Since the Jews were not concentrated in one area of Spain, it is difficult to commit to a single point of origin.
v The most optimistic argument of all is that even though Jewish people traveled and migrated throughout the world over the past centuries, Sephardic music preserved Jewish culture and is representative of its original environment because of its preservation of the poetic and musical traditions of the romance. Also, popular lyric songs of Sephardic music are based on 19th century Spanish compositions; others are versions of the old narrative ballads, life and calendar cycle songs, or local compositions based on events or situations.
Sephardic lyrics incorporate several languages because at the time of the expulsions, there was notsingle language known as Spanish. As a result, Castilian was emerging as a popular language, and Catalan, Galician, varieties of Andalusian, Romance, Asturo-Leonese, and other languages were commonly spoken in areas where Jews lived. Also, although it is uncertain to what extent Jews used Hebrew in their daily life, Hebrew is also heard in Sephardic lyrics. Ladino, an analgam of Castilian and Hebrew is a verbatim translation of Hebrew and is commonly found in Sephardic music.
Singing Presence in Morocco
Although many countries in the world can claim some fame to the development of Sephardic music, Judeo-Spanish singing is best divided between two main regions: Morocco and the former Ottoman lands, with several subdivisions, especially Greece.
From the Ottoman area, the maqam system, a complex system of melodic progressions and patterns characteristic of Sephardic music is heard. In the Moroccan Sephardic songs, microtonal intervals, but to a much lesser degree is practiced. Also, vocal ornamentation in the Ottoman area is sometimes more complex than those Moroccan Sephardic singers “floreo.”
Historically, Sephardic singers were males who were trained in the Ottoman tradition as well as in synagogue singing. Much of their singing has instrumental accompaniment and traditionally took place mostly in domestic contexts and a Capella. Although there are a few exceptions such as Flory Jagoda, harmony is not characteristic of Sephardic singing. Generally, for harmonious parts such as old ballads and wedding songs, women have taken the lead roles in singing these genres.
Melody instruments often accompany singing. Before the nineteenth century, melody instruments were played by men as in North African and Middle Eastern music in general. However, Sephardic songs of the late 19th century used Western style accompaniments and are played by Moroccan Sephardic women who are skilled in the piercing ululation they call barwala or youyou. This is usually heard at the end of songs for various festivities or celebrations.
The Moroccan and ex-Ottoman-area repertoires share the same general song categories. There is one important difference: the late 19th-early-20th century love songs and topical/recreational songs, often the best known Judeo-Spanish songs through recordings and concerts, are mostly from the ex-Ottoman areas rather than Morocco.
In both Morocco and the ex-Ottoman areas, the music of the songs has been strongly influenced by the music of the local cultures. Greek popular songs, Turkish rhythmic patterns and light classical Turkish melodies, Moroccan rhythms, entire songs translated into Judeo-Spanish, and popular melodies from the early 20th century, including tangos and the Charleston, have all played an important part in the development of what is now Judeo-Spanish song.
Classifying Judeo-Spanish songs
There are three types of Sephardic songs — topical and entertainment songs, romance songs and spiritual or ceremonial songs. The following shows each groups function:
v Songs used primarily in domestic and recreational settings:
– Romances (old and new) and other narrative songs
– Love songs (usually cancianes)
– Topical and recreational songs (cancianes or sometimes coplas)
v Songs used in primarily in contexts of religious and ritual life
– Life cycle songs: birth, marriage, coming of age, death
– Calendar cycle songs (usually coplas)
– Songs on religions and moral themes (usually capias)
In Sephardic music the most common instruments heard accompanying songs include the plucked lutes, mandolin, hammered Middle Eastern zither, violin, and hand drums from the Greek, Turkish and Moroccan cultures. Percussion instruments like the tambourine are often used. Medieval instruments are not generally used however Sephardim can adapt an instrument if they deem it is important to the event. Regardless of whether or not certain instruments are used, the voice is considered the most important instrument in Sephardic music.
20th Century Sephardic Tradition
The early 20th century saw some popular commercial recordings of Sephardic music come out of Greece and Turkey, followed by Jerusalem and other parts of the Eastern Tradition. The first performers were mostly men, including the Turks Jack Mayesh, Haim Efendi and Yitzhak Algazi. Later, a new generation of singers arose, many of whom were not themselves Sephardic. Gloria Levy, Pasharos Sefardíes and Flory Jagoda are popular Eastern Tradition performers of this period. Gerard Edery, Stevani Valadez, Françoise Atlan and Yasmin Levy are among the new generation of singers bringing a new interpretation to the Ladino/Judeo-Spanish heritage and, in the case of Levy and Edery, mixing it with Andalusian Flamenco.
Currently, there are many musicians in Israel, Spain and North America who are researching Sephardic songs and developing new music from them. Sephardic music has been exposed and influenced by so many cultures therefore new artists are experimenting with and performing Sephardic music more often than Sephardic Judeo-Spanish artists.