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Folk or Not, Sephardic Music for the Ages

Just because something’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy. Classical composers, for example, have long mined folk music for inspiration: Brahms had a thing for German folk tunes, Chopin made the Polish mazurka a mainstay of Romantic piano literature and Bartok built much of his music atop a foundation of Magyar folk song. But turning folk music into art music carries risks; namely, that the spirit and flavor of the source material — presumably the stuff that caught the composer’s attention in the first place — will get lost in the shuffle. Often it’s the rhythmic vitality and straightforward melodic appeal of folk music that catches a composer’s ear. Gussy it up too much, and you wind up with an over-pimped ride: all chassis, and no engine.

Then there’s the issue of whether the folk music in question is really folk music at all. Sometimes it can be hard to tell. For example, the melodies on which composer Jorge Liderman based the 46 short pieces of “Aires de Sefarad” (“Airs of Spain”), on the Albany Records label, seem like they ought to be the real deal. Liderman, an Argentina native who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has long had an interest in Sephardic Jewish music. Bits of Sephardic song have found their way into such pieces as “Notebook,” “Song of Songs” and the aptly titled “Sephardisms.”

But “Aires de Sefarad” is the most explicitly Sephardic of Liderman’s works thus far. Commissioned to write a piece for a guitar-and-violin outfit called Duo46, and inspired by a trip to Spain during which he visited the southern province of Andalusia — birthplace of flamenco, tapas and sherry, and a center of both Arabic and Jewish culture during the Middle Ages — Liderman set out to write a cycle of 46 wordless songs based on what the composer describes as “unchanged original melodies” sung by Sephardic Jews. Toward that end, he culled 46 tunes from “Chants Judeo-Espagnols” (“Judeo-Spanish Songs”), a four-volume anthology compiled by Sephardic singer and journalist Isaac Levy, who was born in Turkey and immigrated to Palestine as a child. Like Liderman, Levy studied music in Jerusalem, and he was among the earliest champions of Sephardic music in Israel.

Still, the notion that Levy’s material represents “authentic” Sephardic folk music is open to debate. By the time Levy began his archival efforts in the 1950s, Sephardic music had already been through the historical meat-grinder. Long entrenched in their diasporic homes, the Sephardic singers whose repertoire he amassed often sang Greek and Turkish songs along with their Spanish and Portuguese holdovers, and all of it was colored by Western influence. As a result, no one knows what early Sephardic folk music actually sounded like; and since the first Sephardic recordings were made in Constantinople in the early 1900s, we’re not likely to find out anytime soon.

So much for unchanged, original melodies. But only a curmudgeon would fault an artist for aspiring to capture the essence of something that doesn’t really exist. What matters most is how effectively Liderman makes use of his chosen material, and how well his compositions fare in their own right. By either standard, Liderman gets an A.

For starters, Liderman is a man who clearly values the oft-neglected virtue of brevity. Each of his settings is a model of concision; only one of them clocks in at more than two minutes in length, and many are finished in less than 60 seconds. Yet Liderman manages to cram an introduction, a full-fledged exposition and even a brief coda into almost every one. Granted, the success of each treatment depends to some extent on the strength of the germinative material, and not all the original 46 melodies were created equal; there are a couple of meandering tunes, and one or two disposable confections. But they end as quickly as the more compelling ones, which vastly outnumber the handful of duds.

Liderman is also not a man to waste the few notes he chooses to use. When confronted with a love song like “Avrix Mi Galanica” (“Open My Pretty One”) or “Mama, Yo No Tengo Visto” (“Mother, I Haven’t Seen Him”), he responds with the kind of urgent romanticism that some poor jerk with a guitar could only hope to summon while standing beneath his lover’s window. And his more rhythmic ventures, like “Morena Me Llaman” (“They Call Me Morena”) and “Diziocho Anos Tengo” (“I Am Eighteen Years Old”), are bracing in their intensity. These are not effete salon versions of folk tunes; these are full-bore, let’s-get-jiggy settings of material that was either meant for dancing, or derived from something that was.

There’s plenty of other stuff to admire, like the range of textures that Liderman pulls from the pairing of guitar and violin — compare the rich cloth of “Avra Este Abajour” (“Open Your Window”), replete with strummed chords and double-stops, with the linear counterpoint of “Andarleto, Mi Andarleto” (“Andarleto, My Andarleto”) — and the way he skillfully links his 46 miniatures into a cohesive cycle. But it’s the overall sense of passion and vigor that kept me hitting the repeat button, and made me wish that I, too, was 18 years old and knew someone named Andarleto who had a trellis worth climbing.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer and musician living in New York.

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