Merengue, Flamenco, and a Side of Latkes

By Matthew Oshinsky

Published December 25, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It was standing room only as concertgoers filed into Congregation Shearith Israel, Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, for an evening of traditional Sephardic song. The December 23 event, part of the 4th annual Sephardic Music Festival — December 21–28 in New York — offered a tuneful lesson in the long and varied tradition of the music that originated, for the most part, on the Iberian Peninsula and traveled across the globe with Spanish Jews as they fled the Inquisition in 1492.

CELEBRATORY: The quintet Ansambl Mastika performed at Hanukkah concert, held December 23 at New York’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
CELEBRATORY: The quintet Ansambl Mastika performed at Hanukkah concert, held December 23 at New York’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.

Congregants were still picking over the spread of homemade latkes and brownies when the Florida-based saxophonist Yehonatan Elazar began the evening with a roster of soft-jazz inflected tunes that fused Sephardic melodies with flavors of the Mediterranean and Latin America. Mr. Elazar jokingly apologized for injecting one of his compositions with a merengue rhythm — a product, he explained, of his Dominican heritage, and further testimony that Sephardic music, like the Jewish people, claims roots in nearly every corner of the globe.

As concert organizers restocked the food and jammed more chairs into the modest Levy Auditorium, the Israeli guitarist Dan Nadel and American vocalist Audrey Aviva Babcock took the stage to showcase their fine synthesis of Spanish, Middle Eastern, and European music.

“This music has a lot of ‘ay’ in it, which is Spanish for ‘oy,’” Ms. Babcock said of the duo’s repertoire, sketching a line of sorrow in song that began with 15th century Spanish Jews and gypsies, continued through the grand opera of George Bizet’s “Carmen,” and came to define, among other genres, the blues music that underpins much of our modern Western fare.

Clenching her fists and pulsing with the tremors of a diva, Ms. Babcock, her warm mezzo-soprano bounding from wall to wall, intoned tales of jealous lovers and dashed hopes in the anguished voices of Sephardim who were singing dirges long before the Christians ruled the Iberian Peninsula. She sang mostly in Ladino, an ancient, nomadic form of Spanish spoken by the Jews of the region that was nearly decimated after their expulsion.

Mr. Nadel laid an expert flamenco foundation for Ms. Babcock’s vocals, alternating furious strums of his acoustic guitar with dexterous flourishes up and down its neck. Later, he stirred in the slower arpeggiations of North American folk and the colorful chord structures of traditional gypsy music.

Moving from the soulful to the celebratory, the New York-based quintet Ansambl Mastika finished the program with a set of upbeat Balkan finger-snappers that managed to accomplish what the dwindling coffee supply could not. Led by the woodwind player/composer Greg Schneiderman (a.k.a. Greg Squared), the electric outfit set its feet in Eastern European folk music, weaving clarinet lines and blasts of trumpet into a tapestry that covered everything from Bulgarian wedding music to the big-band jazz of Benny Goodman (a first generation Polish-American Jew).

As members of the audience danced spontaneously through the aisles (okay, they were prodded), the abiding power of community that spawned each of the various strains of music on the program swelled like the warm heart of an ever-hopeful people.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.