The Hidden Meanings of Ladino Music and Poetry – Jewish Journal

Posted By on January 10, 2021

Fifteen years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, I never imagined that the provocative questions I had about the hidden meanings of Ladino music and poetry would take me to working and teaching at Cambridge University, where I find myself today.

My own Sephardi background and ancestry from northern Morocco were always present, propelling me in my journey. As a performer of Ladino music in the Los Angeles area, I directed a choir founded by members of the Sephardic Havurah from Sephardic Temple Tiferet Israel. I spent my Shabbat dinners with a group of Canadian and Israeli Moroccans, and I went to synagogue in what was an almost private shtibl recreating a Moroccan synagogue on the corner of Olympic and La Cienega. It was clear to me that no matter where in the world a small Moroccan community formed, the transmission of its culture and identity remained strong.

My experiences and perceptions drastically changed when I was awarded a Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship to Tangier to study the Judeo-Spanish music of Northern Morocco in an obscure language that nobody talked about Haketia, or Moroccan Judeo-Spanish.

Since then, collecting, researching and performing the music of the Jews of Morocco has consumed my waking hours. Suddenly, I was able to hear the songs of my maternal ancestors, which had been almost completely forgotten after they emigrated to South America in the nineteenth century. I reconnected to an ancient part of my own history, which prompted a slew of questions: How does one enter the unspoken messages of a communitys subconscious through its music? How can I, as a researcher and performer, transmit the depth and beauty of this millenary communitys sounds especially when the news cycle and political concerns dominate the discourse?

I began my research by investigating the songs that Moroccan Jews sung to their children while putting them to sleep, the soft humming of a woman preparing Shabbat dinner and the melodies sung around the Shabbat table or during Havdalah. These are the songs that generations carry with them across their migrations, forming the sonic backbone of Moroccan Jewish communities in Madrid, Toronto, Caracas and Paris.

In contrast to the celebratory public music that Jews sing at Muslim and Jewish weddings and on national television and radio, these private repertoires tell another story. They are usually stories of belief in tsaddikim, humorous or satiric stories from the communitys history or fictional depictions of violent episodes following a breach of the strict boundaries around womens sexuality and marital faithfulness. These songs tell the inner story of who the Jews are for the Jews not who they are for their Muslim friends and neighbors.

These songs tell the inner story of who the Jews are for the Jews.

During the ten years I lived in Morocco, certain pieces of my life went into fast forward: I married a Jewish music producer from Casablanca, finished a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris, had three children, started a sound archive (KHOYA: Jewish Morocco Sound Archive), founded a Jewish film festival and sang for ambassadors, counselors to the palace, ministers and diplomats, artists, filmmakers and national festivals of diversity.

And what I discovered in those ten years was that music in Morocco is split along gendered lines. Only men or non-marriageable women sing the public sphere repertoires in the public sphere whereas the reputable matriarchs of the generation transmit music in the private sphere. This tradition brings the message of Jewish transmission and continuity squarely onto the laps of women singers. They sing about sexual boundaries, fertility and love of God. I have been fortunate enough to witness a grandmother sing a wedding song to her grandson while wrapping a ribbon around a dollop of henna on his palm on the morning of his Bar Mitzvah; and I have watched an aunt sing a humorous song about a difficult mother-in-law to a young bride on the night of her mikveh immersion.

In these intimate moments of transition between life cycle periods, womens singing infuses the younger generation with the bracha, or baraka in Moroccos Arabic (blessing), they need to protect and bless their lives. Surprisingly (or not), the communitys soundtrack has a varied playlist: Hebrew liturgical music as well as Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Amazigh humorous and moralistic songs. Moroccan Jews listen, sing and dance to a splendid porousness of classic Moroccan Andalusian; popular chaabi music; French, Spanish, Israeli, Latin American, American and British pop; and the songs of dith Piaf, Abdel Wahab, Enrico Macias, Sarita Montiel and John Lennon confirming that a very Jewish cosmopolitanism and multilingualism is ever present.

A few months after receiving my Ph.D. in Arts, Literature and Civilization, I applied to a research position at Cambridge University to form part of a team of researchers working on the musical encounters across the strait of Gibraltar. I proposed focusing on the use of the Jewish voice in the regions musical and cultural diplomacy. I got the job and have been in Cambridge since 2018. Fittingly, my college affiliation is with Peterhouse, Cambridges oldest college, founded in 1287 on a Jewish merchants land only three years before the expulsion of the Jews from England. Tradition, ritual, knowledge and Judaism continue to intermingle in my Cambridge life.

In the Spring of 2021, I will build the pilot project for the KHOYA archive, an online exhibit of Jewish Saharan womens songs for birth funded by Cambridge Universitys Arts and Humanities Impact Fund. The exhibit will demonstrate how womens songs of the private sphere are at the heart of deep ancestral identity transmission. Other womens songs, which I recently released on Spotify, do the same, they include:

Fifteen years ago, I thought that the synagogue held the deepest part of Jewish transmission in Morocco. But today, I know it to be the songs from home. I can only imagine what the next fifteen years will bring in my quest for the musical heart of our people.

Dr. Vanessa Paloma Elbaz is a Research Associate at the Faculty of Music of the University of Cambridge. She has a Ph.D. from the Center for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies of Sorbonne Paris Cit University and was a Senior Fulbright Research Fellow to Morocco. She has been described by the New York Times as a kind of one-woman roving museum of her own.

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The Hidden Meanings of Ladino Music and Poetry - Jewish Journal

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