Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sephardic Music Roundup

I met a nice fellow last week who's wife has a Sephardic background. I promised him I'd send him a list of good Sephardic music resources. I'm not an expert, but will list the best stuff I've found. If anyone wants to add to my list, please leave me a comment. I'd appreciate it.

For the purpose of this roundup, I'm including both European, North African, and Middle Eastern music and emphasizing contemporary recordings.

I'll start with Sephardic liturgical music.

1. Renanot Institute for Jewish Music (in Israel). My Post. "The Renanot Institute deals with the documentation, research and promotion of Jewish music of the various ethnic Jewish communities, as well as with the promotion of religious Jewish singing and cantorial music in every possible way." Has articles, some online music clips, and has recordings for sale.

2. Sephardic Pizmonim Project. My Post. "Founded in September 2002, [the Project] is dedicated to the preservation of the liturgical traditions of the Sephardic Middle Eastern Jewish community." Has articles, LOTS of online recordings, and has recordings for sale.

3. An Invitation to Piyut. My Post. "The piyut purifies and refines key components of Hebrew culture into a totality: language, music, mysticism, history, legend, philosophy, and prayer, as well as personal, family, and national stories and emotions. The signing of piyut makes it possible to experience this totality in its deepest sense....We aim to gather in one place a meaningful selection of piyutim from all Jewish cultures in a manner recognizing the varied styles and influences existing in the Jewish tradition, turning the website into an “international home” for piyut." Has articles, LOTS of lyrics, LOTS of online recordings, and an online piyut radio station.

Sephardic Popular Music

Ok. So there are way too many great Sephardic popular recordings to list here (see Judith Cohen's bibliography below for more). But here are some starting points that I like.

1. Flory Jagoda. My Post. Jagoda is a Sephardic folksinger originally from Bosnia who performs traditional Sephardic songs passed down through her family as well as her own compositions. She has become a sort of grande dame of Sephardic Music in the US, recording a series of albums, authoring a songbook and receiving a Heritage Fellowship.

2. Pharoh's Daughter. "Blending a psychedelic sensibility and a pan-Mediterranean sensuality, Basya Schechter leads her band, Pharaoh's Daughter, through swirling Hasidic chants, Mizrachi and Sephardi folk-rock, and spiritual stylings filtered through percussion, flute, strings and electronica. Her sound has been cultivated by her Hasidic music background and a series of trips to the Middle East, Africa, Israel, Egypt, Central Africa, Turkey, Kurdistan and Greece." Pharoh's Daughter is wonderful and in heavy rotation. The Pharoh's Daughter website.

3. Divahn. "Anyone who thinks Jewish music equals klezmer needs to hear Divahn's Middle Eastern and Sephardic grooves Divahn infuses traditional songs with sophisticated harmonies and arrangements using tabla, cello, rabel, doumbek, violin and other acoustic instruments, plus vocals in Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish, Persian, Arabic, Aramaic and Turkish." The Divahn website.

4. The Sara Aroeste Band. My Post. "Most influenced by the music and language of her Spanish roots, Aroeste grounds her music in Ladino, or castillian Spanish, the language originated by Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. American born, Aroeste has decided to revive this rich body of music by combining it with more contemporary musical influences." Their website and myspace page.

5. The Songs of Sepharad. "The Sons of Sepharad unites three world-renowned singers of Sephardic Music - Aaron Bensoussan, Gerard Edery and Alberto Mizrahi - in a thrilling musical consort that takes audiences on a voyage of discovery. Exploring songs in Ladino, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages passed down from the Golden Age of Spain, these brilliant artists embrace the rich musical trove of the Sephardim as a living legacy, plumbing its antique treasures as they contribute to its continuing evolution by composing new songs in the genre." Their website.

6. Ofra Haza. "A popular Israeli singer, actress and international recording artist. Of Yemenite Jewish ancestry, Haza was born the youngest of nine children in the poor Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikvah. She became an instant local and then national success story, the subject of great pride for many Israelis of Yemenite origin." A good Wikipedia entry, recordings at Harmony Ridge, the Ofra Haza Video Collection, and YouTube videos. My favorite album is "Homeland Songs." (As I understand it, Yemenite and Iraqi Jews don't really consider themselves Sephardic, but Haza is worth putting on just about any list. So she's included.)

7. Sephardic Tinge. Anthony Coleman's piano jazz combo takes on Sephardic rhythms and melodies with quirky elegance. I love all of his albums, but Morenica is my favorite. His recordings are available through Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture.

8.Balkan Beat Box. "Blending electronic music with hard-edged folk music from the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East, the exciting and internationally acclaimed
collective Balkan Beat Box is out to prove that all the world is indeed a stage -- and that we are all gypsies." Their website and JDub Records.

9. Zohar - Keter. An amazing collaboration between American jazz pianist Uri Caine and Sephardic cantor Aaron Bensoussan. This was one of the albums that inspired my love affair with Jewish music and showed me it's possibilities. Its out of print but you can find it on ArtistDirect and through Half.Com.

10. Tanja Solnik 'From Generation to Generation: A Legacy of Lullabies' Traditional Jewish lullabies sung in Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew. "This beautiful collection of haunting Jewish lullabies celebrates a unique musical heritage. Tanja Solnik has a beautiful voice... Appealing to all ages and backgrounds" While not strictly a Sephardic recording, it's loaded with classic Sephardic lulabies including Numi Numi, two versions of Durme, and Durme Mi Angelico. There's also a sequel "Lullabies and Love Songs."


1. The Sephardic Music Festival. "The New York Sephardic Music Festival (NY-SMF) seeks to increase interest in and awareness of the Sephardic culture, including Mizrahi, Yemenite and Ladino traditions, highlighting the diversity that exists within the Sephardic branch of Jewish culture and history. The latest Sephardic musical talents in the U. S. will be showcased, working to reinvigorate the thriving Sephardic culture that exists and is waiting to be re-discovered. Our goal is to give people the opportunity to learn and enjoy this rich, sensual tradition that has the power to make hips shake and souls soar." Annually in December.


1. Hatikvah Music. One of the mainstays of Jewish music, with more a wide variety of Sephardic recordings.

2. Harmony Ridge Music."With the explosion of World music in the last few years, has come an increasing interest in the roots of Sephardic music. The artists listed ... represent an intense investigation and creative interpretation of ancient and spiritual music."

3. Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture. "There is a life of tradition that does not merely consist of conservative preservation, the constant continuation of the spiritual and cultural possessions of a community" Tzadik is my favorite label. It continually puts out fabulous and original Jewish music, with a leaning toward jazz.

4. Smithsonian Global Sound. The Smithsonian's music label, which includes the historic Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Lots of classic field recordings from all over the world including Gloria Levy's 1959 recording "Sephardic Folk Songs" and lots of other Sephardic recordings.

5. Emusic is my favorite online vendor. It's subscription based and has lots of great stuff including most of the artists listed above.

And finally, general info on Sephardic Music

1. Judith R. Cohen's "A Short Bibliography of Sephardic Music" on KlezmerShack. "Here are some short reviews which I've basically adapted from: my "Sonography of Judeo-Spanish Song, Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review" from my update notes, and from my brief reviews in "the Rough Guide to World Music", and the Journal of American Folklore." Includes documentaries as wells as musical recordings.

2. Judith Cohen's "Sephardic Song" on the World Zionist Organization site. "Sephardic music is really a complex of musics. Depending on how one interprets the term "Sephardic," it might refer to music of the Jews descended from those exiled from late 15th-century Spain and Portugal, or it may refer to the music of all Jews not categorized as Ashkenazic, even though such a large proportion of them would more accurately be designated "Mizrakhi" -or "Eastern," "Oriental."

3. Catherine Madsen's "In Search of Sephardic Music" on KlezmerShack. "The story of this music is a complicated mix of tradition and innovation, folk transmission and commercial adaptation, and shifting cultural and aesthetic expectations."

4. Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. "For nearly 40 years the Foundation has been dedicated to preserving and promoting the complex and centuries-old culture of the Sephardic communities of Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Europe and the U.S. Emigration, and the devastation of the Holocaust, have combined to weaken historic communities which had resisted assimilation, where Ladino, the Sephardic language, was used continuously and unique cultural traditions were practiced." Not so much about music in particular, but lots of other great info about Sephardic history and culture.


GahdShmaya said...

On a survey of Sephardi music, you've got to include Ramon Tasat. Chazzan Tasat is an extraordinary performer of Sephardi music, and a native Ladino speaker. He's also an expert; he did his doctoral thesis on the liturgical music of Moroccan Jewry.

See his website at

Jack said...

Gahd, Thank's for the tip. I'm not familiar with Chazzan Tasat and will go find his music right away.