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The Sephardic Diaspora

Ballads and Instrumental Music


© Palomo Díaz-Mas

In 1492 the Jews were expelled by royal edict from the Crowns of Castile and Aragon. Following their expulsion, the Jews emigrated - often after great hardship - to north Africa, to the lands of the then vast and powerful Ottoman empire, or to some European country such as the southern France, Italy or nearby Portugal. Their refuge in Portugal was short-lived, however: only five years later, in 1497, the Jews of Portugal were also forced, again by royal decree, either to convert to Christianity or to abandon the kingdom. The fact that, at that time, there was no Inquisition in Portugal (it was not established there until half a century later), enabled some of those who had been forced to convert to continue secretly practicing their religion. Thus, they formed groups of crypto-Jews who, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, were to lay the foundations of the new Jewish communities in the Low Countries and Italy. Some of the converts reverted to Judaism and joined the communities of Sephardic Jews in north Africa or the eastern Mediterranean.

This, in very broad terms, is how the Sephardic world came into being. It is well known that, right up until the 20th century, a large number of those Jews who originated from the Iberian peninsula and settled in countries around the Mediterranean have retained Spanish as a language for both everyday communication and literature, and that, together with the language, they have preserved customs and practices, literary influences and all kinds of cultural features of Hispanic origin.

Nevertheless, the "Hispanic" and "medieval" aspects of Sephardic culture should not be exaggerated to the point of excluding all others: the language, literature, music and other expressions of the culture of the Sephardic Jews gradually evolved, grew and developed in exile. While never losing sight of their basic identity (their Jewishness) or their awareness of their origins (their Hispanic background), Sephardic culture gradually incorporated numerous influences from the peoples among whom it evolved: from the Arab culture of north Africa, from the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbocroats, Bosnians and, in more modern times, from western countries (especially France, but also Italy and even Spain), which from the 19th century left their mark on the socio-economic and educational life of the Sephardic Jews. Also influential, in the 20th century, was their adaptation to countries which became the destination of new waves of migration, such as North and South America, Israel and, once again, France and Spain.

The mixture of all these influences is reflected in the anthology "The Sephardic Diaspora," in which Hespèrion XXI has recreated a representative sample of songs and ballads of the eastern Sephardic communities. On a musical level, this selection shows, together with what are presumably the surviving traces of medieval Hispanic music, the clear influence of sophisticated musical forms which developed in the Ottoman empire from the 16th century (and which were rapidly adopted by Sephardic Jews, even for use in their liturgical chants), as well as of the popular music of the Balkans.

On a literary level, of course, we find ancient ballads which were current in Spain at the time of the expulsion: El Moro de Antequera ("The Moor of Antequera") is a fronterizo ballad, one of many composed about events on the frontier between Christian Spain and the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which narrates the Christian siege of Antequera in 1410. Levantose el Conde Niño ("The child Count arose") is the famous old ballad Conde Olmos, which develops a number of motifs (such as the magical power of song) common to other ballads found in several pan-European folk traditions. El rey que tanto madruga ("The king who rose early") is the romance known as Landarico, a composition of courtly origin which circulated in Spain during the 16th century and was ultimately derived from a Latin chronicle. Por allí pasó un cavallero ("There passed that way a knight") is a fragment of La dama y el pastor, the oldest recorded ballad in the Hispanic tradition, thanks to a manuscript version (containing many Catalan features of expression) copied in Bologna, in 1421, by the Mallorcan student Jaume d'Olesa. Nani, Nani (La mujer engañada, or "The deceived wife") appears in a 16th century music book compiled by Francisco de Salinas, the blind organist of Salamanca cathedral and friend of the great poet, Fray Luis de León. Una matica de ruda ("A garland of roses") is the Sephardic adaptation of the ballad La guirnalda de las rosas, which was published in various collections of 16th century Spanish ballads.

In addition to these ballads, however, the anthology includes items which are the result of the adaptation of Greek ballads (El sueño de la hija: El rey de Francia, "The daughter's dream: The king of France") and others in which the influence of Balkan narrative poems overlays and blends with an Hispanic ballad (Por qué llorax blanca niña, "Why do you weep, fair child", is a fusion of the Hispanic version of a pan-European theme, La boda estorbada, "The wedding disrupted") and the Greek ballad "The wicked mother"). In another case, we find a modern ballad composed only recently, which must have found its way from Spain or Spanish America into the Sephardic tradition this century (El hermano infame: En la Santa Helena, "The infamous brother: In Santa Helena"). Both Hispanic and Balkan-Turkish elements are to be found in the love songs, in some of which we can recognize themes and motifs which are still alive today in Spanish popular songs (Yo m'enamori d'un aire, "I fell in love with a breeze").

The very language of the songs and ballads is an expression of their syncretistic mixture of influences. Together with archaic forms of pure Spanish (mancevo, for "young man"; dovlones, for "doubloons"; buracos, for "agujeros", or "holes"; recordar for "despertar", or "to awaken"; aharvéx, in turn an Arabic-derived word, for "golpeéis", or "beat"), we find words from Turkish (xemir), Greek (sirma, meaning "embroidered brocade") and Arabic (juma, or "Friday prayer").

A similar phenomenon can be seen in the role that these songs and ballads played in the life of the Sephardic Jews. Many of the songs served merely as entertainment, sung to while away the time; but others performed more specific functions, and were sung or chanted to accompany different occasions in life or in the liturgy. Of those included in the present anthology, we know that La partida del esposo (Por qué llorax blanca niña) and El hermano infame (En la Santa Helena) were used as songs of mourning, while La mujer engañada (Nani, nani) was sung as a lullaby. Other songs and ballads were used as songs to celebrate weddings, births and circumcision, or as paraliturgical songs sung at various Jewish festivities.

To be able to enjoy these Judaeo-Spanish songs today, when hardly more than a few precarious remnants of the Sephardic tradition survive, is perhaps an invitation not only to savor their music and the stories that they recount, but also to reflect on how a people in exile succeeded in keeping alive for centuries their own tradition (Jewish and Hispanic), while enriching it thanks to their coming into contact and living with many other and diverse cultures.

Translated by Jacqueline Minett