At its best, not only is the Alliance Française a private institution that promotes French language and culture, but it is also an umbrella organization that provides a haven for all that remains true, good and beautiful in France and among French speaking countries, a cultural entity that the French call “La Francophonie.”
Quebec is very much part of this cultural world and so is Ontario, to a lesser degree, with its surviving French speaking communities outside of Toronto and, a bilingual college at Glendon Campus, part of York University in Toronto. On November 25 the Alliance Française of Toronto demonstrated its commitment to this wider, inclusive definition of La Francophonie, by hosting one of Canada’s most remarkable musical treasures, an ensemble that was founded in Montreal, called Gerineldo.
In 1492, the year that Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World, his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the forced conversion or expulsion of the remaining Jews of Spain, a country which had had a Jewish presence since the time of the Romans. Despite a seven hundred year period of Moorish, Arabo-Islamic cultural florescence, within which the Jews of Spain had played a major role, by the time of the expulsion, many of the regional languages and dialects that eventually became modern Spanish had become their mother tongue and so, these Jews sang the songs of Spain, including ballads whose texts can sometimes be traced back to medieval Spain.
Jewish Synagogue of Toledo from Before the Expulsion (Spanish National Tourism Office)
This latest branch of the tree of Israel then found refuge in the Sultanates of Morocco (and in the Ottoman Empire), just across the straits of Gibraltar in what the Arabs call the ‘Far West,’ “Al Maghreb al Aksa.” There, they joined the patchwork of well-established ancient Jewish communities, which included the Berber speaking Jews of the Atlas Mountains, and the Arabic speaking communities of the coastal plain, as well as the Saharan borderlands. These recent immigrants from Spain were so confident of the excellence of their culture that they called the earlier Jewish communities of Morocco “forasteros” or wanderers, as if to imply that their less sophisticated culture made them somehow less substantial than the newcomers!
For centuries, these Spanish speaking Jews, or Sephardim, kept themselves apart from the other Moroccan Jewish communities, but over time there was some intermarriage and cultural exchange. However, the Jews of Northern Morocco, in particular in the towns of Tetuan and Tangier and nearby settlements, continued to speak varieties of Spanish in their homes and sang the songs of Spain, while in their synagogues they continued to teach their children Hebrew, living lives according to Jewish law, the Halacha.
At the same time, as the Sephardim also spread to nearby Algeria and Tunisia, they and their Arab Muslim neighbours together kept alive the Arabic court music that had been brought by Muslim and Jewish émigrés from newly reconquered Spain, what is now called the music of Al Andalus. Many Jews were great exponents of this complex tradition (such as Raymond Leyris, late father in law of the French pop music star, Enrico Macias). They often adapted its melodies to the needs of the synagogue, especially to an ancient tradition of Hebrew religious poetry (the Piyyut). As we do not have a clear idea of which way musical influences went, it is quite possible that synagogue melodies may have found their way into this secular repertoire of their hosts, as once occurred among Jewish musicians of the classical musical tradition in Iran.
On November 25, the ensemble Gerineldo performed a selection of secular and sacred songs in a style that was and remains remarkably close to the musical tradition of the Spanish speaking Jews of Morocco, yet aesthetically available to any outsider who knows how good music should sound.
The performance consisted of just over twenty songs, which included four Hebrew poems, Piyyutim (sometimes with Spanish refrains). One was sung with what I can only call that typical “sandiness” which informs the singing style of so many Spanish speakers, such as Moroccan born singer and scholar Solly Levy, whose good nature and love of life spilled out of his renditions. For those who associate the sacred with the austerity of Gregorian chant, his rendering of a religious Jewish hymn surged with enthusiasm, giving us a distinctly different take on what it means to be “spiritual.”
Later in the evening Solly’s grandson (Matan Boker), amazed the audience with his young rich voice in the rendition of a Hebrew Piyyut sung in the style of the masters of the classical music of Al Andalus. He was well accompanied on the oud by Demetrios Petsalakis, a recent migrant from Greece to Toronto, from the younger tradition of Greek folk music revivalists, who are rediscovering the once profound participation of Greek musicians in the 19th and 20th century Ottoman musical world, a world where so many Sephardic musicians rose to eminence in Greek and Turkish musical circles (one of the most famous being Rosa Eskenazi, a Ladino speaking Sephardic Jew who sang in Turkish and Greek and is now considered by Greeks as one of the founding divas of modern Greek popular music).
The artistic director of Gerineldo, Oro Anahory Librowicz, who like Solly emigrated from Spanish Morocco to Montreal decades ago, introduced the songs alternatively with Judith Cohen. Oro, Solly and his grandson Matan, are all indigenous carriers and explorers of their own musical traditions and are able to express their erudition with charm and sophistication. Oro is a solid singer with a fine sense of rhythm, and maintains a friendly yet dignified (and sometimes mischievous) stage presence, which often becomes humorous and a bit risqué, as so many of the Spanish songs have obvious or hidden erotic meanings. She shares these with the audience with appropriate wit and subtlety.
Sex, both licit and illicit, permeates the lyrics of so many ballads, for example the variations of the ballad Gerineldo. As Oro explained to the audience, according to one of the optimistic renditions of this song, among Spanish-speaking Jews of Northern Morocco, in times of trouble one hopes to have “the good fortune of Gerineldo” (who instead of a death sentence, was made a prince for seducing the daughter of the king). This is the kind of contextual information that so often comes from an insider to a tradition.
Several songs were performed traditionally, i.e. a capella, or only with percussion. All in all, the complex division of labour that supports the ensemble, both on and off stage, consists of Oro’s PhD and repertoire research, her back up singing and rhythmic clapping , her finely honed introductions and, Solly’s meaningful interpretation of both Spanish and Hebrew melody. Then there is Judith’s PhD and repertoire research, her vocals and performance on bowed vielle, traditional hand percussion, recorder and introductions. Tamar sings, does traditional hand percussion and dances while Demetrios plays oud and riqq. It is a well-honed group.
If Solly, Oro and Matan are “insiders” to the tradition of Spanish Sephardic music, having been born and raised within that branch of the tree of Israel, who are the outsiders in the ensemble? And at this point, are they really outsiders?”
Judith Cohen is an Ashkenazi Jew from Montreal who has spent her life exploring, documenting, teaching and performing the music of the Mediterranean with a focus on the Sephardic tradition, as it was rediscovered by performers, scholars and musicologists (like herself) during the last one hundred years. She has spent days, weeks and months at a time, living among Sephardic and Mediterranean communities both here and abroad and, she inhabits a soundscape that is distinctly non North American.
As the late great ethnomusicologist, Mantle Hood once advocated, she has become “bi-musical,” as at home in North American Anglo and French musical folklore and performance as she is in the Mediterranean music world, from medieval times to the present. A former oud student of the late Sami Al Maghribi, one of modern Morocco’s greatest singers (and a chazzan in a Montreal synagogue) her renditions of Sephardic music pass the muster for those who were born into the tradition. And that is why, so many years ago, Solly and Oro invited her to join their ensemble. But to everyone’s pleasant surprise, some years later, they ended up getting “two for one.”
Being of a peripatetic nature, Judith has travelled and performed extensively in Morocco, the Balkans, France, Spain, Turkey and Israel with her daughter Tamar Ilana, who from an early age, imbibed the folklore of the Sephardim and related Mediterranean peoples, at her mother’s feet and, who started performing with her on stage when still quite young. Last night Tamar played drums, danced and sang to the delight of her fellow musicians and the audience.
As a well trained Flamenco dancer and singer, she performed a stunning version of the ballad Gerineldo as it is sung by the contemporary Flamenco musicians of Andalucía; the people whose ancestors, along with the incoming Gitanos (Roma, or Gypsy as they were once called) inhabited southern Spain after the Jews were expelled. In an eerie and uncanny way, these people who came to Andalucía after the Jews left, now sing the ballads that the Jews took with them from their ancestral homes in Spain, into the wider diaspora. The people are long gone, but the song has remained. Had Garcia Lorca lived, no doubt he would have written a poem about this.
The living musical tradition of the Jews of Morocco now resides among the 3000 Jews in Casablanca, and the even smaller, remnant communities in Marrakech, Tangier, Essaouira, Fes, Meknes, and Agadir, among immigrants in Europe and the Americas and, in the land of Israel where it flourishes and has influenced the wider national musical culture. In homage to this phenomenon, three representatives from the office of the Consul General of the State of Israel in Toronto, were official guests of the Alliance at Gerineldo’s performance.
The range and authenticity of the performance would not have been possible without the efforts of a number of scholars going back to the turn of the last century. The first group was Spanish scholars who discovered that Jewish communities in Morocco and in the Ottoman Empire were speaking a form of what they considered ancient Spanish. They focused on the ballads that were still sung, largely by Moroccan and Ottoman Turkish Jewish women in the household and community. They began to write them down and compare them to the ballads that had survived in Spain. They then realized that they had a common origin in the daily life of medieval Spain.
The next group was the musicologists and the ethnomusicologists such as Levy, and Armistead and Silverman, among many, many others. These were and remain largely Israeli, European and North American Jewish scholars who were not only interested in Spanish balladry but, who began to explore the musical basis of these Spanish ballads as well as the non-Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic musical repertoires of the Sephardim. These scholars were and continue to be influenced by ethnomusicological theory. Many hoped that because these ancient ballads had survived in oral tradition, perhaps the music of the ballads retained some trace of ancient Spanish melodies.
Alas, after a century of investigation, no written trace has ever been discovered of melodies that may go back to the time of the expulsion. In the case of the Jewish women of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, ballad melodies reflect the wider musical culture, and in the specific case of Northern Morocco, so close to Spain, the influence of modern Spanish music, both folkloric and popular, is evident.
Since WWII, as this repertoire of music became more widely known, through publications and recordings, a number of ensembles in the Jewish cultural world have attempted to bring it to the stage. Gerineldo is just one of them. In my opinion they are among the best, as they balance solid research with the needs of giving a good show.
But there have been other performers who have harmonized the music, added strings and choral polyphony or even turned many of the songs into “fusion” like pieces. Some of these interpretations, such as those sung by the Israeli duo the Parvarim, can be quite beautiful. Admittedly, their interpretations sound like Simon and Garfunkel singing in Hebrew and Spanish but, they have developed a loyal following in and outside of Israel. They are just one group among the many that have dipped into this music.
Many of the songs that people now think of as the “top ten Ladino hits” are actually songs from the late 19th-early 20th century. Some were learned from Spanish singers on tour in the former Ottoman lands, some from early phonograph recordings (from a phonograph industry that began in Constantinople around 1906), and in Morocco from Spain during the Spanish Protectorate years. One of Gerineldo’s strengths is the fact that they bring this old repertoire of ballads (narrative ballads, not ballads in the modern popular sense) as well as related life and calendar cycle songs back to life, and leave most of the “modern” love songs to other performers, many of whom do them very well.
Then amidst all this confusion, a generation of largely non-Jewish musicians who have been researching and recreating the music of the European Middle Ages, has discovered the Sephardic Jewish repertoire. They now mingle it among their interpretations of songs of the troubadours from early Europe, whose oral tradition died out centuries ago. These musicologists and performers also draw deeply on the folklore of rural Europe and the music of North Africa and the Middle East, hoping that since these musics may have changed less than the music of Europe during the last one thousand years, then, they may actually be closer in spirit to the music of people like the Sephardim and living models for the recreation of medieval music.
Finally, one is confronted with an official Spanish government supported tourist policy that highlights the exploration of the sites where Jews once lived in Spain, often supported by supposedly “medieval Jewish musical ensembles,” usually made up of non-Jewish Spaniards claiming that they are playing authentic Jewish music from before the expulsion (which does not exist!).
Actually, these musicians are playing somewhat souped-up up versions of archival recordings collected by ethnomusicologists and interpreted in a loosely pan Mediterranean style for the consumption of American and other tourists. But such a “purist” and “traditionalist” take on Mediterranean music is now out of fashion among contemporary musicologists and post modern thinkers who argue that “anything goes,” in the words of the once famous Jazz composer, Cole Porter.
The good news is that because of the scholarship of people like Oro, Judith and Solly we can better hear and understand the last strains of a musical and lyrical tradition that survived for more than five hundred years. When we hear Gerineldo perform, we are hearing music that is as close as we can hope to the sounds of Jewish family and community life as it was lived, once upon a time, in the gardens of Spain and the mountains of Morocco, centuries ago.