Ballads of the Sephardic Jews
(Dorian, 1999)

On this album the five men and two women of the ensemble Sarband play covers of a selection of songs belonging to the musical heritage of the so-called Sephardic Jews. The word "Sephardic" is taken from a geographical designation in the bible: Sepharad. Although there is no certainty about its original reference, it is now generally taken as the Hebrew term for Spain or the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, where -- according to their own traditions -- Jews have been living since Roman times.

When Christianity first reached the Iberian Peninsula in the early 5th century, the Jews entered a period of harsh persecutions and forced conversions. Consequently, the remaining Jews welcomed the Muslim conquest of Spain and Portugal in 711 AD with enthusiasm. Under Islamic law they were accorded protection and guaranteed religious rights against payment of a special tax. Despite their status as second-class citizens, many Jews rose to positions of high influence. In fact, Muslim Spain witnessed the bloom of a highly sophisticated hybrid civilization: Muslim and Jewish elements merged into a unique mixture that came to be known as Moorish culture. Sciences, architecture, literary arts and music flourished in centers such as Cordoba, Seville and Toledo between the 8th and 12th centuries.

With the fall of the last Muslim stronghold Granada in 1492, Spain returned to the Christian fold and the Jews again suffered greatly under the ensuing backlash. Those refusing conversion to Christianity were forced into exile. This second diaspora took the Sephardic Jews to Portugal and North Africa and the western reaches of the Ottoman Empire, such as Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Others eventually made it to more hospitable Western-European countries like the Netherlands where, for example, the famous rationalist Baruch Spinoza found sanctuary to write his path-breaking philosophical works. Also in exile many Sephardic communities retained their unique language, Ladino, an archaic form of Spanish with Hebrew and Arabic influences.

The multi-national group Sarband has now made a compilation of Sephardic ballads in both Arabic and Ladino. Sarband is an initiative of Bulgarian-born Vladimir Ivanoff. A scholar-musician with a doctorate from the university of Munich, he has studied lute, ethnomusicology and music history. This versatile producer and director not only leads Sarband, but was also involved in the L'Orient Imaginaire project. Vocals are provided by Fadia El-Hage and Belinda Sykes. The Lebanese El-Hage is a trained opera singer and has also worked with Ivanov on the Vox project. Sykes is an expert on Bulgarian folk singing and teaches at various British universities and conservatories. Four Turkish musicians provide the instrumental accompaniment on this CD. Apart from Sarband, they have also played together in L'Orient Imaginaire, and the ensemblesFerahfeza and Emre. They are all experts in the field of traditional Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish art music.

Ballads of the Sephardic Jews contains nine tracks. The oldest lyrics, a song called "Ya Jawhar al-Jalali," date back to the 12th-century poet Ibn Quzman. The newest composition is the album's opening number, a Spanish folk song from 1577, transmitted by Francisco de Salinas from Salamanca. It opens with a wry admonition to the Jews to leave Spain. Other songs find their origins in Morocco, Greece, Bosnia, Turkey and Venice.

I happen to be proficient in Arabic and was surprised to notice that the transcribed lyrics of three of this CD's numbers were in an Arabic that had remained remarkably close to the classical language originating from the Arabian Peninsula. Even the imagery used in the song "Hal dara" by Ibn Sahl can be traced directly back to that of the fabled pre-Islamic "Golden Odes," still considered the epitome of Arabic poetry. The musical arrangement is very classical as well and bears a close resemblance to the songs composed by Riad al-Sonbati for Egypt's most famous female vocalist ever, the late Umm Kulthum. The singer on this CD is giving an excellent performance and she even succeeds in imitating the warm timbre of Umm Kulthum's voice. The earlier mentioned "Jawhar al-Jalali" has been put to music by the 13th-century Spaniard Cantiga de Santa Maria. This melody sounds very much like a troubadour or minstrel ballad, inviting the speculation in how far the music of medieval Europe was inspired by exchange with the Muslim world.

Other songs appear to be more thoroughly rooted in European traditions. The melody used for the romance "Porke Yorach" is very reminiscent of a Portuguese Fado, while "Cados Cados" -- in spite of consisting of a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin -- is like a Catholic hymn. The CD is closed off with a performance of "Una tarde de verano," an epic story that apparently has shuttled hence and forth between the West and the Orient. The romance is derived from a 13th-century German epic named "Kudrun," which in turn is said to be inspired by a much earlier song from Arabian origin. The version on this album is a Spanish variation re-imported via Morocco.

Ballads of the Sephardic Jews is a fine piece of musical archaeology, providing an excellent sample of the cosmopolitanism of medieval Moorish culture. Both world music aficionados and lovers of medieval music can derive much pleasure from this album.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 28 December 2002

[ visit the artist's website ]