This wonderful website showcases over 100 years of recorded Sephardic music, from the 78 rpm era to the present. It explores in detail the earliest Sephardic recordings, the artists that made them, and their repertory and performance practices. These early recordings tell a rich story of Sephardic musical life in the first half of the 20th century. The website also covers the second half-century of recorded Sephardic music, touching on the amazing outpouring of Sephardic recordings and the diverse performing styles used in each.
Appendices include a discography of Sephardic 78s ordered three different ways: by label (including information on the issuing record companies), by song and by artist (with information on the performers). Another Appendix demonstrates what the site could ultimately encompass: a comprehensive discography of all modern era recordings (from the LP era onward), with over 10,000 song samples. This “preview” section provides a discography and samples for over 125 versions of the well-known Sephardic song, A la una yo naci (Since First I Saw Your Face).
Sephardicmusic.org’s mission is to comprehensively document the entire history of recorded Sephardic music worldwide and to present this multimedia information and meet the needs of anyone studying, performing, or enjoying Sephardic music.
The Jewish Music Research Centre and its AMTI label have released An Early 20th-Century Sephardi Troubadour: The Historical Recordings of Haim Effendi of Turkey. This monumental 4-CD re-release with 59 songs chronicles the liturgical and secular output of this extremely influential Sephardic recording artist.
At the end of the 1950s three publishing events had a huge impact on recorded Sephardic music. The first was a release of Ladino songs by Gloria Levy in 1958. Ms. Levy learned the songs from her mother, Emilie, who had grown up in Alexandria. The songs were done in a “folk song” style, with Ms. Levy playing guitar and her mother accompanying her on the mandolin. This recording introduced Sephardic music to many folk performers and their audiences. Then, the publication of Léon Algazi’s Chants Séphardis in 1958 and the first volume of Isaac Levy’s Chant Judéo-Espagnols in 1959 offered a rich supply of songs.
The past 50 years have seen unique developments in Ladino recordings in Israel, Europe and the Americas.
Sephardic music was adopted and adapted by the Early Music movement. This development yielded hundreds of recordings and had a huge impact on shaping the public’s perception of Sephardic music as Medieval music. The Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles was the first mainstream classical artist to record Sephardic repertory, specifically, two songs in her 1962 release, Spanish Song of the Renaissance. (Una hija tiene el rey and Una matica de ruda.).This was the first recording to use what might be described as Medieval or pseudo-Medieval accompaniment for Sephardic songs. Six years later, de los Angeles followed with Songs of Andalusia. A young musician named Jordi Savall played gamba on this recording. Savall and his wife later formed the early music group Hespèrion XX. The group started with a version by Isaac Levy intentionally stripped clean of traditional Sephardic performance practices, then re-imagined the songs as they thought they might have been performed. As Professor Judith R. Cohen has noted, “Many of the groups performing Sephardic music have ignored the living tradition and have chosen to re-invent a ‘historical’ one.”
De los Angeles and Hespèrion XX laid down a template that has been used ever since: medieval instruments, medieval sounding arrangements, medieval claims for much of the music and vocalists typically performing in an art song or folk-inflected style. Voice of the Turtle was one of the groups that followed closely on their heels. They have recorded more Sephardic songs than any other group in the world.
In 1995, Joel Cohen wrote of having heard “one astonishing piece in Spanish (A la una nasse io) by Haim Effendi, singing with oud and kanun accompaniment. Cohen realized that eastern aesthetics, or better still, performing collaborations, were required to arrive at convincing performance practices. His Camerata teamed overseas with the l’Orchestre Andalou de Fes and domestically with the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble. Several other Early Music groups also injected a strong Arabic musical component into their performances.
Doubling back to the start of both the LP era and the folk revival movement, songstress Carolyn Hester learned the Sephardic song, Los Bilbilicos at a song-swapping group in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. The melody is an extremely well known setting of the Sabbath table song, Tzur Mishelo. Hester recorded it on a 1962 LP that is best known for Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing on several tracks. Hester’s husband at the time, Richard Fariña, heard the song and adapted it into The Swallow Song, which he recorded with his next wife, Mimi, on their second album, Reflections in a Crystal Wind.
There were a handful of other relatively early US folk recordings along with the Levy and Hester disks. Artists in Spain and Israel turned out more recordings with Sephardic songs over the years than those in any other countries. Their counterparts in Turkey made their own unique contributions.
In Spain, Victoria de los Angeles, led the way, joined by Sofia Noel performing in an art song style. Joaquín Díaz was the first Spanish folksinger of note to perform Sephardic songs. His research activities lent additional authority and influence to his music making. So did the re-release of two of his 1970s recordings of Ladino songs by Spain’s Ministry of Culture.
The overwhelming majority of recorded songs come from the Eastern Mediterranean tradition. Díaz recorded some Western, or Moroccan, selections as well. A Canadian group, Gerineldo, was one of the few to concentrate on the Moroccan repertory. Gerineldo’s recordings were difficult to find in North America. In Spain, though, they were re-released on Tecnosaga, a prominent music label, and made their way into department stores and specialty shops where they came to the attention of the local folk community.
Many other Spanish folksingers such as Rosa Zaragoza, claimed Sephardic music as part of their cultural patrimony and performed the repertory in a wide variety of styles.
The Ottoman Empire was the site of most 78-era Sephardic recordings, and Turkey is still home to a sizable population of native Ladino speakers. The country’s most prominent performers of Sephardic music are Los Pasharos Sefaradis and Jak and Janet Esim. The Pasharos ensemble, founded in 1978, perform in an urban Istanbuli idiom.
The husband and wife duo of Janet and Jak Esim, joined by various guest musicians, performed in a jazz vein. Traditional cantors, such as Isak Maçoro have contributed a handful of recordings, as have other singers performing the traditional Maftirim repertory.
By far the most unusual example of Sephardic music in Turkey came from a group named Sefarad. Fronted by three young Jewish musicians, Sefarad sold hundreds of thousands of copies of recordings containing Sephardic music, and even hit the Turkish pop charts. In their double CD, songs are presented twice—once in Turkish and once in Ladino. These were the best selling Sephardic recordings in the world.
Though not a native Ladino speaker, singer Yehoram Gaon was born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic family. His 1974 recording Romantic Ballads from the Great Judeo Espagnol Heritage played a key role in promoting songs from the Eastern Sephardic lyric and light religious repertoires. Songs came from the Isaac Levy and Léon Algazi books.
Two years later, an LP titled Boustan Sephardi drew yet again on Isaac Levy’s melodies. Many of these songs were represented in the repertory of the pioneering Bracha Zefira. Together with the Romancero compilation, these recordings firmly fixed the core of the Ladino revival repertory in Israel, repertory formed in the last decade of the 19th century with a relatively low number of romances.
The World Music Movement, which helped ethnic music cross over into the mainstream market, has been going strong for over 25 years. Sephardic recordings got a particular boost in 1992, owing to heightened interest in marking the 500th anniversary of the expulsion from Spain.
Suzy, Fortuna, Jaramar, Sarah Aroeste and others have performed pop-rock versions of Sephardic music.
There are many recordings by performers born to the tradition and others who have studied it intensively. Since 1980, Israeli researcher Dr. Weich-Shahak has released a dozen meticulously researched compilations of “field recordings” of Sephardic songs.
In her very helpful “Short Bibliography of Sephardic Music,” Professor Judith R. Cohen classified various performances as Documentary and Semi-Documentary. Using her classification, Hadass Pal-Yarden brought out a well-researched example of the latter, Ottoman urban music on the recording Yahudice.
The website is still trying to locate early 78 rpm recordings or obscure LP (33 rpm) recordings. If you know of any that your family or friends own, they would love to hear about them.
You can listen to many of the recordings mentioned here, at sephardicmusic.org.