Why Song is a Lifeline for Sephardic Jews

Sunday 12th January marks International Ladino Day, a celebration of the Ladino (or Juedo-Spanish) language through story and song. Music is a thread woven through the history of Sephardic Jews and is one way in which the community is trying to preserve and promote the language, with prominent figures such as Karen Gerson Sarhon and Sarah Aroeste, pitching in.

The history of Sephardic Jews and their music reads like a storybook.

Exiled from Spain in 1492, they set sail to new countries in the hope of finding safety.

And as they saw the shoreline slip away from sight for the last time, they broke into song.

According to contemporary chronicler Andres Bernaldez, the rabbis facian cantar á las mujeres e mancebos—urged the women and young people to sing—as they left the Castilian shore.

We don’t know what they sang but it seems likely that music helped them to both express their feelings and come together as a community.

Songs have been an integral part of Sephardic Jewish culture ever since. (The word Sephardic comes from Sefarad, the Hebrew name for Spain.)

At the time of exile, Sephardic secular music was largely based on the folk music of 15th century Spain, called Romansa, which means ‘ballad’ in Spanish.

Often sung by women as they did their household chores, Romansas told tales of Spanish folk heroes, knights in shining armour and star-crossed lovers. But they changed over time to take on more everyday themes such as love, jealousy, gossip, and relationships.

The songs also took in cultural influences from where the exiles settled. Chief among these was the former Ottoman Empire, which included what we now call Turkey, the Balkans, and parts of North Africa. The empire was a very important sanctuary because of its policy of religious tolerance which allowed Sephardic Jews to preserve their language and culture for so long.

So, it’s no surprise that Turkish classical music is one of the many influences on Sephardic songs today, as are various popular melodies of Mediterranean descent, which Sephardic Jews would add their own Ladino lyrics to.

With such a long and heartfelt tradition, many celebrated singers are making sure that the music and its Ladino lyrics live on.

Among these are Karen Gerson Sarhon, whose Sephardic family hail from Turkey, and Sarah Aroeste, whose Sephardic family traces their roots back to North Macedonia and Greece.

Both have a deep personal connection to the music and are taking steps to preserve their heritage.

Karen grew up in Turkey where her father used to sing Sephardic songs at home. But it wasn’t until she was 18 years old and performed in a Judeo-Spanish musical in Istanbul that she ‘promptly fell in love with the language and the music.’

Since then, she has been on a mission to preserve and revive the songs of her culture. As well as performing as a soloist, she co-founded the group Los Pasharos Sefaradis in 1978 with her friend Izzet Bana. The four-person group is dedicated to researching, performing, and preserving original Judeo-Spanish songs. Their active collection numbers 400 so far.

Karen says: “Izzet and I decided to found a singing group with the aim of making this wonderful music known to people. We encountered a lot of resistance at first because people thought we were chasing a lost cause, that of preserving our culture. However, we fought relentlessly and succeeded. Our group was invited to give concerts all over the world and we became known as ‘the most authentic group of Sephardic music singers’. Knowing the language of course was a big plus.”

American-born singer Sarah Aroeste, who originally trained in classical opera, was drawn to her Sephardic musical past after studying with Ladino singer Nico Castel in Israel. She then started incorporating classical Ladino songs into her catalogue and now writes her own Ladino lyrics and music, with the aim of keeping it alive for a new generation.

Many of her songs are written from the perspective of women, such as ‘Chica Morena,’ which is about a Sephardic girl who has wandered the earth listening to the voice of her ancestors to find her way home.

The female perspective is a central theme in many Sephardic folk songs.

She says: “Women were the centrepieces of many life cycle events, and so, naturally, their point of view is front and centre in a lot of the folk repertoire. I love that about Ladino! A lot of the songs are from a woman’s perspective as she kept the house together—and fortunately, we get to see a lot of sides: humour, sensuality, a window into family life.”

Historically, Sephardic women in the Ottoman Empire were also far more home-based than men, so had a greater role in keeping traditions alive.

Karen says: “During the Ottoman rule, the Jews lived in communities that were tightly knit and closed to any outside influences. The fact that the women never went out except to visit their relatives and neighbours, who very conveniently all lived in the same street (or maybe two streets away), which was populated by Jews anyway, helped to maintain the traditions that were crucial for the make-up of the ethnic identity of the community.”

Both Sarah and Karen are very aware of the importance of music in their lives.

Karen says: “[Music] absorbs the character of the people who sing and perform it and it is entrenched in the culture of these people, from lullabies to songs of mourning. It is there in every stage of people’s lives. It is especially important in our culture because even though we have thoroughly researched it, we found no evidence of there being a culture of dance, only of music.”

Sarah says: “I think because we were an oral tradition originally (as are many other cultures), our songs were passed down from generation to generation to preserve much of our folk history. There was definitely an emphasis on music as a means of bringing families and communities together, especially during life-cycle events.”

The role of Sephardic singers, such as Karen and Sarah, is particularly important today as the Ladino language is classed as severely endangered by UNESCO.

So, the songs, which first helped sustain Sephardic Jews on their voyage away from Spain, are now also a lifeline to help preserve both the culture’s history and its language.

That’s why, when we recorded the Ladino language for uTalk, we also recorded the names of well-known Ladino singers as part of the culturally specific topic.

As well as Sarah Aroeste, Karen Gerson Sarhon and Los Pasharos Sefaradis, we also included the following four:

Flory Jagoda—a Bosnian-born Jewish singer-songwriter and guitarist who escaped the Nazis during WW2 and now lives in the US.

Jak Esim Ensemble—a Sephardic instrumental and singing band from Turkey who perform Ladino songs.

Mor Kabasi—a singer-songwriter born in Jerusalem who can trace her Jewish ancestors back to Spain and who sings Judeo-Spanish songs.

Yasmin Levy—an Israeli-Spanish singer/songwriter of Judeo-Spanish music whos Sephardic parents hail from Turkey.

But there are many, many more we haven’t been able to include. To all of them, we say a heartfelt mersi muncho (thank you very much)!

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