What the Klezmer Revival Can Teach Sephardic Music


By Seth Rogovoy

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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At least one listener did a double take at a recent Hanukkah-themed concert when Annette Ezekiel, singer/front woman of the Yiddish/klezmer outfit, Golem, introduced the famous Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” as “another Eastern European song.” Surely Ezekiel, who is a Columbia University-trained scholar and linguist as well as a pre-eminent bandleader on the contemporary Jewish scene, knows that “Ocho Kandelikas” is a Ladino number by none other than the first lady of Sephardic song, Flory Jagoda.

As it turns out, Ezekiel was right. Although Sephardic music is most often thought of as emanating from Spain and the Spanish diaspora, Jagoda was from Bosnia, perhaps straddling the Central/Eastern European divide, but surely with one foot in the Ashkenazic. Which is perhaps why her song, Sephardic or not, fit right in musically and geographically in a concert of Golem’s “Homesick Songs,” as the group’s new CD is called, alongside Serbian Gypsy numbers such as “Romanesh” and “Mito,” the Middle Eastern-influenced “Turkmenistaner,” and solid Eastern European shtetl tunes like “Bialystok” and “Belz.”

It was a suggestive gesture by Ezekiel, who has done her homework through field research, digging up songs throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where the distinctions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic aren’t always so black and white.

This is perhaps why Sephardic music is beginning to find its way into the repertoires of klezmer bands like New York’s Golem and California’s Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. On the latter’s new CD, “And I in the Uttermost West,” the band, now featuring Brazilian-born guitarist/vocalist Felipe Ferraz, tackles a trio of Ladino tunes. And Basya Schechter, who grew up speaking Yiddish in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, has for several years been mixing Sephardic and Middle Eastern melodies into her pan-global, Jewish musical midrash with her ensemble, Pharaoh’s Daughter.

If a full-fledged Sephardic music revival along the lines of the klezmer revival of the last 25 years has yet to materialize, it’s not for lack of trying on the part of these and other musicians. But perhaps those who lament the lack of enthusiasm over Sephardic music while they dutifully soldier on, performing and recording songs from the Spanish diaspora, might learn a lesson or two from the klezmer revival.

Find a celebrity standard bearer: The biggest thing that ever happened to klezmer music was when classical violinist Itzhak Perlman rediscovered his musical roots in the sound of the Old World wedding musician and went back to his native Poland to film a PBS documentary. The subsequent “In the Fiddler’s House” recordings and concert tours, featuring many of the top klezmer bands, brought the music to the top concert stages of the world for the first time in history. It didn’t hurt Yiddish music, either, when Mandy Patinkin sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Yiddish.

Go to camp: Since the mid-1980s, the annual KlezKamp gathering and its various offshoots have served as minor-league training grounds where hundreds of aspiring klezmer musicians have learned from the pros. Most of them have never made it out of the minors, but a few of them, including Golem and tsimblist Pete Rushefsky, have made it to the majors, and some, like English world-beat band Oi Va Voi, have even gone on to become cutting-edge innovators in the genre.

Avoid the other kind of camps: The sure kiss of death for any burgeoning Sephardic revival would be to have the field divided early on among different styles and approaches. Klezmer thrived for the first 10 or 15 years because every group brought something new or different to the wide-open field. Some bands replicated 19th-century music; others favored the immigrant-era sounds; still others recapitulated Yiddish swing of the 1930s and ’40s. Nowadays, klezmer is strong enough to afford to be splintered into offshoots, some favoring a neo-traditional approach, while others mix it up with non-Jewish influences, including jazz, avant-garde and hip hop.

Surely there’s room enough in the Sephardic music world for the folkloric approach epitomized by Judith R. Cohen’s lovely “Canciones de Sefarad” recording of a few years back, the contemporary, Sephardic pop fusion of Sarah Aroeste’s “A la Una: In the Beginning,” and the pan-global, world-beat approach of Rahel Musleah’s new collection of Sephardic and Mizrahic worship melodies on “Hodu: Jewish Rhythms From Baghdad to India.” But Sephardic scenesters must be realistic: The chances of anyone under 60, much less anyone not already inside the Sephardic community, finding his way to “Canciones de Sefarad” or Flor de Serena’s self-titled, flamenco-flavored collection of traditional Judeo-Spanish songs without first getting turned on by Aroeste’s accessible rock arrangements or, perhaps, by the funky beats and humorous raps of Hip Hop Hoodios — to name another group that blends Sephardic music with contemporary sounds — are pretty slim. Put another way, it took the Klezmatics to spread the gospel of immigrant-era clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, who is now commonly regarded as the Charlie Parker of the genre. Maybe Sarah Aroeste can do the same for Flory Jagoda.

Write a book about Sephardic music: No sooner did the first book about klezmer come out about five years ago than did a rush of others follow in its wake, so that now there are at least a half-dozen scholarly works, guidebooks and memoirs, solidly establishing klezmer as a topic fit for an entire semester’s worth of university study. The same needs to be done for Sephardic music.

Embrace diversity: The Sephardic diaspora is so far flung, extending from the Americas to Portugal, Morocco, the Balkans, Turkey, and into the Middle East and Central Asia, that “Sephardic music” is nearly as much an umbrella term as “world music” itself. Rather than draw artificial boundaries around certain kinds of music or get bogged down in arguments over authenticity, celebrate the far-reaching influence and breadth of the Sephardic tradition, which in some ways can even be said to embrace the Ashkenazic tradition. After all, many Jews fleeing the Inquisition eventually found their way to the Pale of Settlement.

And here, finally, might be the most important point. Anyone listening to the cadences of Rahel Musleah’s “L’khah Dodi,” or to the sinuous, clarinet-inflected arrangements of the Ruth Yaakov Ensemble from Israel on its soulful, hypnotic new CD, “Ziara - Sephardic Women’s Songs of the Balkans,” or to Golem’s surprising juxtapositions of Ashkenazic and Sephardic tunes, can hear plainly that these two musics are closely related — first cousins that speak with the distinctive vocabularies and accents of their homelands, but that are sprung from a common well of Jewish history and experience. And that is something worth celebrating in song.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music” (Algonquin Books, 2000), and the editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living magazine.

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