The name Sephardic comes from a reference in the Bible (Obadiah 1:20) to the Sepharad region, which was early identified as the Iberian Peninsula. Jews settled in the peninsula as early as the first millennium B.C.E. Their culture flourished from 900-1050 during a period of Moorish rule in southern Spain, under which they were allowed equal rights as citizens. Many cities in Spain were founded and named by Jews, the most notable being Toledo (Hebrew "Toldoth," which means "generation"). In the closing years of the Moorish-Spanish conflict, religion increasingly became an issue as the Catholic clergy gained in power and formed the Inquisition.
In 1481 the Spanish Inquisition was established, primarily against “Conversos”—Jews who had converted to Catholicism, though many of them maintained Jewish religious practices in private. This was an attempt to weaken Jewish influence within Spain, because many of the conversos maintained close ties with the Jewish community. This was followed by the edict of expulsion, issued in 1492 by the “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabel, which evicted the Jews as well as the remaining Moorish inhabitants from Spain. Ironically, 1492 also marks the beginning of the colonial period and the expansion of Spanish culture into the New World, where new cultural groups were encountered and assimilated.
Many of the Sephardim—Spanish Jews—settled first in Portugal, where the Inquisition did not become established until 1536. At that time, the King issued a decree stating that any Jews remaining in Portugal were automatically Christians—at the same time making it almost impossible for them to leave—because he needed their expertise in overseas trade. Most of the Jews still in Portugal at that time became, therefore, crypto-Jews (hiding their religious practice). After the northern provinces of the Netherlands became free from Spanish rule, many Sephardim left the Iberian Peninsula for the newly independent Dutch provinces or for Brazil. The cumulative effect of these edicts and of the movement of the Sephardim between Spain, the Netherlands, and the New World, was to create an international trading network, based on a shared language (Spanish and Portuguese) and culture (Jewish) that linked the countries together, and extended from Morocco to Brazil, including the Caribbean as well. The Sephardim were especially important in establishing trading relationships between Holland and the Spanish colonies, and several were prominent in the Dutch West Indies Trading Company, which was founded in 1621. The Sephardim even became part of a Dutch plan to turn Brazil into a Dutch colony. In 1642, about 600 Jews left Amsterdam for Brazil, at the request of Dutch settlers who needed craftsmen of all kinds. However, when Portugal reasserted its control over Brazil, the Sephardim settlers were not allowed to settle in New Amsterdam because of their religion.
The Jews who migrated to Europe were linguistically assimilated but those who migrated to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean were able to maintain their Hispanic culture. This was due largely to their acceptance as full citizens by the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish community in Sarajevo dates to as early as 1565. Most Jews came via Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria. The community flourished and maintained its Spanish heritage, developing a written language that used an alphabet based on Hebrew and Arabic. The Jewish community was devastated during World War II, in part by deportation to camps and in part by local massacres. After the war some survivors returned and reestablished the community; however, it is now centered on an Ashkenazi (Yiddish-speaking) synagogue.
The Sephardic songs we perform are in Ladino, an old form of Spanish that was maintained as a secular language by Spanish-speaking Jews (known as the Sephardim) in the Diaspora. Depending on their location, Ladino speakers incorporated words from their local vernacular such as Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Turkish, Greek, and Slavic and have also retained archaic Spanish words and pronunciations. Sephardic music is an oral tradition transmitted through community life, not through written music, and many songs reflect their Spanish past as well as the influences of their current home. Often, the scales and melodic contours are derived from Arabic music, including augmented seconds and cadences that end with a descending minor second.
This traditional Sephardic song from Bosnia is in the rhythm of a tango. Tango developed in Argentina as a result of the mixture of African rhythms and dance with European couple dances. Originally seen as a dance of the lower class, it became accepted as the characteristic music of Argentina after it became widely popular in Europe during the early decades of the 20th century. This song illustrates an interesting aspect of Sephardic music—while the 15th century Spanish language is steadfastly retained, the music accompanying the texts draws on the music styles among which the particular population of Sephardic people lives.
This traditional Sephardic ballad has a text dating back to the 17th century.
This well-known traditional Sephardic song uses an Arab-based scale.
This lively Sephardic song, which celebrates the traditional praise of God, was composed by Flory Jagoda, the foremost performer and composer of Bosnian style Sephardic music. The talesim (tallit) is a fringed prayer shawl worn while reciting morning prayers and when attending services at the synagogue. The tefillin are two small leather boxes containing scrolls from the Torah that are strapped to the left arm (for the heart) and the forehead (mind and thoughts) for daily prayer.
Cuando el Rey Nimrod
This is a song of the Sephardim. Although the figure of Nimrod, the mighty hunter and grandson of Noah, appears very briefly in several books from the Old Testament, this song has its origins in later Jewish and Islamic traditions that depicted Nimrod as an archetypal evil person who had an historic confrontation with Abraham. The original version of the song, which dates back to the 13th century reign of Alfonso X of Castile (1221-1284), gives a poetic account of the persecutions perpetrated by the cruel Nimrod and the miraculous birth and deeds of the savior Abraham. This version we perform begins with the original verse about King Nimrod, but then moves beyond the story to a contemporary blessing for circumcision.
Las hermanas reina y cautiva
This song, which has been handed down through oral tradition, was collected in Greece, from whence comes its 7/8 meter. Because of the centuries-long conflicts between the Spanish and the Moors, many songs—like this one—speak of slavery and captivity.
Porque llorax, blanca niña
The text of this traditional Sephardic ballad dates back to at least the 16th century. The melody for this version shows the influence of Arab scales on Sephardic music.
Ya viene el cativo
This Sephardic romansa is one of the many Spanish songs that address captivity and slavery. There was much passing back and forth of slaves during the thousand year conflict between the Spanish and the Moors. Frequently the stories involve the lack of recognition of someone who is returning from captivity after many years have passed, and is not recognized at first. In this version, the returning captive is the wife of her deliverer, but he does not recognize her until she begins to recognize her surroundings.
Yo parti para la gera
Flory Jagoda composed this song about going to war. The Sephardim, or Spanish-speaking Jews, settled in Bosnia as early as the mid-1500s, soon after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. The community was destroyed during WWII.