FolkWorld #48 07/2012
© Pío Fernández

Some Observations on Judeo-Spanish Sephardic Songs

Judeo-Spanish, often called “Ladino”, songs are part of the Sephardic music tradition developed by the Jews who left “Sefarad” – today’s Spain and Portugal – mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries. They settled in several areas of the Mediterranean, including Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Israel; some also went to northern Europe and, eventually, to the Americas. Judith Cohen, a Canadian ethnomusicologist, has worked extensively on medieval and traditional music, and is especially known for her work on Sephardic and related music. She can help us understand some of the common confusions about the origins of Sephardic songs, and their relationship to traditional music of Spain and Portugal.

Pío Fernández: When and where did you start your career as a researcher on traditional music?

Judith Cohen: It’s hard to say. I’ve sung folk-songs since I was very young, in summer camp in Quebec - it was a Jewish summer camp, and many of the counsellors played guitar. They taught us two main types of song: the new (then new) Israeli songs in Hebrew, and the songs of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; also songs of the American and Canadian folk song revival. When I was ten or so, a cousin of my mother’s was married to Sam Gesser, who founded Folkways Records, in Canada, and brought The Weavers to Montreal. I helped them stuff ticket envelopes and they took me to the concert, which deeply impressed me, even though Pete Seeger wasn’t with them then. I ran the folk song club in my high school, and learned a lot of old French Canadian songs as well, then Yiddish songs (Yiddish was my grandfather’s first language but I never learned to speak it).

Judith Cohen |

I started travelling when I was 20, first to former Yugoslavia with a friend, and became enthusiastic about Balkan music – subsequently I went to many workshops for Balkan songs and dances and then started to teach them myself. Around the same time, I became interested in medieval music, and later founded a group; also I heard the British a capella quartet The Watersons, from Yorkshire, and was delighted to hear women singing with low, strong voices – I learned all their repertoire too, and became interested in balladry….. I travelled for a year after my degree in English language and literature – back to the Balkans, to Turkey, Morocco – and, for the first time, Spain, where I ended up teaching French in a village near Castellón, toward the end of the Franco regime. The following year I hitch-hiked around Spain, and ended up recording several songs in Galicia, including from the family of “Mini” (Mini y Mero)….

But as a researcher, consciously, not till later, really. I did my Master’s in Medieval Studies, on women and music in the three religions of medieval Iberia; and only after that did I decide to do my doctorate in ethnomusicology and focus on Sephardic music.

In which places did you perform fieldwork? Were you looking for any specific roots?

No, I wasn’t looking for anything special at first, not till I started my doctorate. I first did fieldwork wherever I happened to be – but at first I didn’t even know it was called fieldwork. I made some good recordings in Maritime French Canada – Acadie – in the early 1970s when I was travelling there with a friend, and around then also started recording some elderly Jewish men and women – not necessarily Sephardic. I also made some recordings in Morocco and Turkey around that time, but really had no idea what I was doing or how to do fieldwork. When I started my doctorate I began to do fieldwork seriously, first with Sephardic Jews in Canada, who had emigrated mostly from Morocco and some from the former Ottoman lands; then after my doctorate, when I had a post-doctoral fellowship, I went to France, Belgium, Spain, Israel…. also New York City, Los Angeles, Miami - and began to do much more systematic fieldwork.

In the 1990s I began my fieldwork with the Crypto-Jews of rural Portugal, and learned much more about village fieldwork – up till then I had mostly done urban fieldwork with Sephardim. A Galician friend, Xosé-Ramón Aparicio, taught me a lot about village fieldwork. I also started working on a project documenting the square drum, pandero cuadrado / adufe, and did a lot of fieldwork for that. By the time I started working on the Alan Lomax project, I was very comfortable with fieldwork and loved it – and still do. But I also learned a lot from friends and colleagues all over Spain about doing good fieldwork – and I’m still learning. I continue to carry out fieldwork related to the Alan Lomax Spanish recordings - and Crypto-Jewish, Sephardic, etc etc fieldwork whenever I can. It’s probably my favourite thing to do – fieldwork.


Sirma @ FolkWorld: FW#38 |

Did you work with Alan Lomax?

No. By the time I met him, at a conference in 1994, it was the last year he was active, before he had a series of strokes and subsequent complications. I knew his work, of course, but never directly from him. Then in 2001 I spent his last Christmas with him and the anthropologist Dr. Anna Lomax Wood, his daughter – it was a very moving week, and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity. Dr Wood – Anna - is the President of ACE – the Association for Cultural Equity, and has for many years directed not only the preservation of Lomax’s work, but also its development and dissemination. She is highly experienced and knowledgeable, and I’ve learned tremendously from her.

How did you start researching on Spanish traditional music?

I ended up in Spain by chance, really. I was travelling for a year, after my first university degree, with no plans at all. When it began to get cold, I decided to go to Spain. The year before that, in Yugoslavia, I had met a Swiss Jewish musician and his wife, on a pension rooftop in Sarajevo, when I was practicing the recorder (flauta dulce), a Handel sonata, and Edmond came running up the stairs asking, in French, “how come you’re playing a Handel sonata on a Sarajevo rooftop?” He and his wife gave me the name of a Spanish friend who had studied art in Geneva, and so when I arrived in Spain I looked for the village, which was in Castellón. The painter introduced me to other friends, and that’s how I ended up in Villarreal de los Infantes, Alquerías del Niño Perdido and Burriana, when Franco was still in power. I learned some Valencian songs, and some old Catalan ballads from a Joan Manuel Serrat Album, some Mallorcan songs from one of the high school teachers, some Spanish Civil War songs from recordings they played very softly, that someone had bought in France….

Do you have Sephardic ancestors in your family tree?

No, none. My family is Ashkenazi, from Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries; they have been in Canada for over a century. And I never heard Spanish till that trip, and never knew Judeo-Spanish existed till – also on the long trip – I went to Turkey and found people speaking it in the Istanbul Bazaar.

During your research in Spain and Portugal: Did you find any traces of old Jewish music anywhere? Maybe in flamenco, or the traditional music in Castile, Galicia, or the Mediterranean regions (instruments, rhythms, melodies, ...).

Shira U’tfila

Shira U’tfila @ FolkWorld: FW#37 |

Nowhere. People need to stop romanticizing and mythologizing Sephardic songs. The vast majority of Sephardic songs most people hear are relatively modern – they are from the diaspora, long AFTER the expulsion from Spain. Some are actually late 19th century Spanish popular songs learned from Spanish touring singers in the 1890s or early 1900s. In other cases, the romancero, and some wedding songs, the WORDS are old but the MELODIES are from different times and places. Jews and Muslims did not write their music down in the Middle Ages, or, for the most part, for a long time after that. We simply do not know what they sang, in terms of music. There is no way to say this or that song or tradition is influenced by Sephardic music. Probably it is far more likely that there was influence from Muslim and, later, Morisco singing.

On the other hand, of course there are traits which are found in many Mediterranean cultures – not because they’re “Sephardic” but because they’re shared traditions – who knows what came first. Monophonic singing, ornamented vocal melodies, use of microtones…. one can hear these in many Mediterranean traditions, including parts of Spain and Portugal (though the latter is not actually Mediterranean) – but that doesn’t mean they’re of Sephardic influence. As for the instruments part of the question, Sephardic musicians generally play the instruments traditional to whatever area they’re living in. And finally, despite what has become popular to assert, flamenco is not Sephardic, flamenco is not medieval, Sephardic is not medieval music……

On those allegedly ‘medieval Judeo-Spanish’ songs traditional in some parts of Spain : Can their origin be traced back to any music originally from the Middle East, or common to other non-Sephardic Jewish communities?

There are no Judeo-Spanish songs in Spain except those sung by Sephardim who moved or moved back to Spain in the 20th century. In fact, the language itself is a diaspora language. There is a Spanish singer who claimed to be singing “an eleventh century Sephardic lullaby”. Well, first of all, no one was writing down lullaby melodies – or almost any melodies except early church plainchant – in the eleventh century. And there was no such language as “Spanish” then – much less Judeo-Spanish. The Judeo-Spanish of the songs people hear is a diaspora language, or more accurately, family of languages, or at least variants. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, or left before or after the expulsion, they spoke whatever they spoke where they were living – Catalan, Portuguese, Aragonese … Judeo-Spanish developed in the diaspora.

One also has to be a little thoughtful about how things are presented. In a recent film about the history of Jews in León, for example, a local singer and a Turkish-Israeli Sephardic singer find they know the same version of a romance, and conclude it must be medieval. Well, actually, no. I interviewed the Turkish-Israeli singer and it turned out that she had learned it from her grandmother – but SHE learned it from her new MOROCCAN neighbours when she emigrated to Israel. The Moroccan tune is a relatively modern one that Moroccan Sephardim likely learned during the Spanish Protectorate. So there is a very simple reason for their knowing the same tune – and it has nothing to do with medieval origins, though the original story of the romance is an old one.

Al Andaluz Project

Al Andaluz Project @ FolkWorld:
FW#42, #43, #47, FW#48 |

What about the Crypto-Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal after the expulsions of the late 15th century, staying on as New Christians? Might they have maintained a musical tradition?

No, not as far as we can tell. And Crypto-Judaism itself – in Portugal, yes, it still exists. In Spain, it’s mostly individuals who remember certain things about their grand-parents; the Chuetas of Mallorca know who they are, and several are returning to Judaism formally, but in no case is there an old musical tradition. In all my work with the Portuguese Crypto-Jews, the only two or three melodies which I have heard them sing that are different from local Portuguese tunes are only different in details (and words) – the tunes are the type of tunes that are easily found in Portugal, pretty generic.

Since we know from Inquisition documents that the first generations of Crypto-Jews in both Portugal and Spain did indeed sing and recite some old prayers and hymns, at some point they must have found that singing different melodies was simply too dangerous. So the Portuguese Crypto-Jews have many, many RECITED prayers – without melodies – and otherwise, they use the same local tunes everyone around them does – except for melodies they learned from visiting Jews beginning in the years around 1920. To my knowledge, neither the Mallorcan Chuetas nor the various individuals who know or suspect they have Converso origins, have any different musical traditions.

Also, people have to stop imagining that all Jews left in 1492. They began to leave, especially from Andalusia, much earlier – for example after the 1391 massacre in Seville. The expulsion from Portugal was 1497, and Navarra not until 1498. And they kept leaving long after that – leaving as New Christians, and taking up Jewish identities again where it was safe to do so – in Amsterdam, the Ottoman Empire… So they would have taken with them the songs popular then – in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Square frame drums are instruments that you play frequently in your musical performances. These are also quite traditional in certain areas in Portugal (adufe, pandeiro quadrado), central and north Spain (pandero cuadrado), or Catalonia (alduf). What can you tell us about their origins in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain)?

Judith & Tamar Cohen: Songs of Sepharad - Empezar quiero contar...

Ruth Yaakov Ensemble: Sephardic Women's Songs of the Balkans

Sirma: La llave de tu corazón

Arkul: Il Bastidor

Shira U’tfila: Sephardic Songs from the Balkans

Judith & Tamar Cohen: Sefarad en Diáspora

We’re not sure when they were introduced, but certainly by the twelfth century they were well established, in poetry, manuscript illustrations (Jewish too) and church sculptures.

About the songs found in the various Sephardic diaspora communities, to which historical periods can they be dated?

It’s easier to estimate dates of song texts (letras) than music. Usually the music is more recent than the song texts. In the case of the old texts, the romances, wedding songs, some religious songs, the same text might have a Turkish tune in Izmir (Esmirna), a different Turkish tune in Istanbul or Cannakale, a Greek tune in Salonica, a Moroccan or Spanish tune in Tetuan or Tangier, a Bosnian tune in Sarajevo…… Then there are the more recent songs – the ones most people have heard – which in many cases are no older than the mid-to-late 19th century or even the early 20th century.

In which other places and communities, far from the Mediterranean countries, have you found remains of the Judeo-Spanish/Sephardic musical culture?

Sure, the Sephardic diaspora is the Sephardic diaspora, wherever it is – Argentina, Venezuela, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami Beach……

Which do you think are the perspectives for the continuation of the Sephardic musical traditions, within the Jewish communities, outside Spain, in Spain, ...?

It depends what one means by continuity. If you mean just singing the songs, well, people will sing them – Sephardic songs have entered the World Music scene, and have become a source of business and marketing, like the rest of World Music. Artists now look for ways to present Sephardic music with their own individual stamp, there are many festivals, many recordings ….. But if you mean in any traditional performance style – probably there is not much chance. Old-style oral transmission from grandmother to daughter to grand-daughter is mostly a thing of the past, and many of the best-known performers singing Judeo-Spanish songs are not from the tradition themselves and, more importantly, often have never even heard a traditional singer singing the songs.

So people are learning from recordings of people who have never heard traditional styles. There are exceptions of course – people who listen to documentary recordings now available, often online too, and learn some traditional singing styles, but most people then change the performance practice, add complicated instrumental arrangements, use their own vocal style etc etc.

Which significant recordings would you recommend to anyone interested on Sephardic music?

I really only recommend documentary recordings – and there are many of them available now. In Spain itself, a series of the Israeli ethnomusicologist Susana Weich-Shahak’s field recordings has been published by Tecnosaga (, for example.

Any internet sites that you can recommend on the subject?

My good friend Joel Bresler’s excellent site – Sephardic Music : A Century of Recordings ( – in collaboration with the Jewish Music Research Center of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Joel has researched Sephardic recordings since the first ones in 1906 as comprehensively as possible and his site includes many useful commentaries and solid information. My own site is really just my site – and I rarely remember to update it. But it’s I’ve published a few CDs, some with Tecnosaga and some with Eduardo Paniagua; and many articles and book chapters, also the notes and/or translations for the Alan Lomax Spanish albums which have appeared so far.

With which traditional and folk music artists have you performed and recorded?

I mostly perform with my daughter, Tamar Ilana, or on my own, accompanying myself on hand percussion, medieval bowed vielle, occasionally oud, or Appalachian dulcimer, and often a capella. In Spain, whenever possible I ask Wafir (Wafir Sheikh Jibril) to accompany me – he’s done so off and on since the 1990s – and also Bill Cooley, whom I originally met before he moved to Spain from New York. Wafir’s on both my Paniagua recordings, and Bill’s on the second one – they’re wonderful musicians and musical companions.

Before playing with Wafir, I performed and recorded a few times with Jaume Bosser, which was also a great experience. We’ve shared the stage with many other wonderful musicians at various festivals. In Canada, my long time friend and colleague Geoff Clarfield has often played oud and extra hand percussion with us in concerts. For many years in Montreal and Toronto, I was a founding member of the Canadian Moroccan Sephardic ensemble GERINELDO, founded and directed by Dr Oro Anahory-Librowicz, and with the legendary Solly Lévy, and Kelly Sultan Amar. I was the only non-Sephardic member.

Also, for many years I was the director of the small women’s medieval music ensemble Sanz Cuer, later called Na Carenza, in Montreal; and of a Balkan vocal ensemble in Toronto, Nova Tradicija. For several years I have taught and led York University’s Medieval/Renaissance ensemble and World Music Choir, both as credit courses.

Photo Credits: (1) Judith Cohen, (2) Sirma, (3) Shira U’tfila, (4) Al Andaluz Project, (5)-(10) CD Cover: Judith & Tamar Cohen "Songs of Sepharad - Empezar quiero contar...", Ruth Yaakov ensemble "Sephardic women's songs of the Balkans", Sirma "La llave de tu corazón", Arkul "Il Bastidor", Shira U’tfila "Sephardic Songs from the Balkans", Judith & Tamar Cohen "Sefarad en Diáspora" (unknown).

FolkWorld Homepage German Content English Content Editorial & Commentary News & Gossip Letters to the Editors CD & DVD Reviews Book Reviews Folk for Kidz Folk & Roots Online Guide - Archives & External Links Search FolkWorld Info & Contact

FolkWorld - Home of European Music
FolkWorld Homepage
Layout & Idea of FolkWorld © The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld