"Con Alegría y placeres" Reveals Range of Sephardic Traditions

Staff Report

The music and song of Sephardic Jews spans many cultures and styles, and it is often both melancholic and bursting with genuine joie de vivre---sometimes in the same song. The rich and warm colors of this musical tradition, which is Spanish, Balkan, Greek, Turkish, North African and Middle Eastern in spirit, were amply expressed during Judith Cohen's Los Angeles concert, "Con Alegría y placeres" on Oct. 22. An Ivri-NASAWI salon at the L.A.'s Workmen's Circle, organized as a coproduction, "Con Alegría" featured Dr. Judith Cohen, a Toronto native, with her 14-year-old daughter Tamar, who already shows considerable musical and linguistic talent (both Cohens are polyglots). The elder doyenne of this tradition performed vocals, oud, medieval fiddle, percussion, while Tamar sang and accompanied on a variety of percussion instruments.

Many of the songs were about love, a subject Sephardim seem to hold in endless fascination (!). But the afternoon was also billed as a celebration of Simhat Torah, and Cohen presented several renditions of songs in honor of this Jewish holiday. Quite often the lyrics, in Cohen's transliterated explications, brought about happy laughter, and I think it would be accurate to say that we all came away from the afternoon with more than a bit of mirth in our hearts. In fact, the beauty of these songs often caused me to forget all the hostility and anger (and killing) occuring in the Middle East. I wishfully wondered if music could not be used to hypnotize the raging masses into making peace with each other and bypassing the politicians who so artfully polarize their constitutencies.

For aficionados of this musical tradition, I thought it worthwhile to include the repertoire for "Con Alegría y placeres" and to mention some of Judith Cohen's explanations. For example, "Con alegría y placeres," "with happiness and pleasure," is a line from a Moroccan song for Simhat Torah, a bilingual song in Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish. "When I chose it for the concert title," Cohen says, "I was thinking that the concert would be on the last day of Simhat Torah, and not of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict going on, which hadn't in fact begun at the time. As we said to the wonderful, friendly audience, we decided to keep to the joyful theme of this title to both honour Simhat Torah, and the Jewish commitment to 'therefore choose life,' looking toward more joyful times.

Most of the songs are songs Cohen learned directly from Sephardim, during her fieldwork in North America, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere; unless specified otherwise. Songs marked with an asterisk (*) are included on the Cohen's forthcoming CD on Pneuma (Spain).

  • "Hi Tora lanu nitana": the title song, from Morocco; the title is also the refrain sung by the audience.Learned from members of GERINELDO, in Montreal.

  • * "Mi al Har Khorev": by Obadiah "the Proselyte," early 12th century, the only manuscript-notated medieval Jewish song in existence, penned by a Norman-Italian priest who converted to Judaism.

  • * "Adonde váis, Señor Ya'akov?" Moroccan: "Señor Ya'akov" goes to visit the tombs of venerated rabbis in their towns; with the audience joining on a refrain in Jaketía,i.e. Moroccan Judeo-Spanish . Learned from

  • Alicia Bendayan, Morocco/Israel
  • * "Ay, madre": a dialogue between a daughter and mother, "mother, find me someone to lie with...." possibly going back to a medieval Jewish legend from Toledo. Learned from Henriette Azen, Oran/Paris

  • "No quiero, madre": a popular early 20th century urban Rom ("Gypsy") song from Istanbul; adapted by Sephardic women to a mother-daughter dialogue about whom to marry, learned from various Turkish Sephardic women in Israel and elsewhere; we sing it in Judeo-Spanish and Turkish.

  • "Zasviril Stoyan": Makedoniya (Slavic). From an area which used to have an important Jewish population, a Makedonian song sung in traditional 2-part village harmony:  a young girl says to her mother, "here, take my broom, I'm going to see who's playing the flute; if he's not married, don't wait for me..." Learned from Ethel Raim, NYC.

  • "La comida la mañana": Judeo-Spanish love song adapted from a Turkish folksong which also exists as a Greek song, based on a Black Sea rhythm, in 7 (2-2-3). Learned from women in the Brooklyn Sephardic Home for the Aged and elsewhere.

  • Ballad suite: "The Husband's Return": versions of a well-known pan-European ballad, suite put together by Judith, 1992/1994:

  • - "Ricolina," learned in Portugal;
    - "Gentils Gallans": late 15th/early 16th century French version (manuscript);
    - "Escuchís, señor soldado": Moroccan Sephardic version, learned in Montreal and elsewhere
    - "Arbolera tan gentil": Turkish Sephardic verison, collection Israel Katz
    - "Germaine": French Canadian version
    - "Mio amor l'anda a la guerra": Italian version
  • * "Ansí se me arrimó", Moroccan Sephardi wedding song: the mother-in-law and bride-to-be spend the night before the ceremony together. Learned from GERINELDO, from Hannah Pimienta (Tangier/Montreal), and others.

  • "Oy, que buena," Bulgarian/Turkish Sephardi wedding song, includes a reference the "borekitas." 9/8 rhythm: 2-2-2-3. Collection Shoshana Weich-Shahak.

  • * "A Padeirinha" (the Baker's Girl): learned in Portugal

  • "La berendzhena": eggplant cooking song, Rhodes; with audience refrain, collection Shoshana Weich-Shahak; Elena Romero (words)

  • Suite: "Üsküdara gider ikyen": following the late 19th century Turkish melody around the Mediterranean, in Turkish, Judeo-Spanish, Bosnian, Hebrew (Morocco), multi-lingual (Alexandria), Hebrew from Morocco; then overseas to its "Der Terk in Amerika" incarnation (played on "klezmer medieval recorder"); suite put together by Judith, 1992, from various sources.

  • Encore: "Ya nur": Egyptian wedding song, learned from George Sawa



    To arrange for a Judith Cohen concert, email or call (323) 650-3157.

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