Preserving the Music of Morocco’s Sephardic Jews

TANGIER, Morocco — They sang to place their infants to sleep, or within the kitchen making ready Purim truffles. They sang in courtyards at evening when the lads have been at synagogue for night prayer, songs of affection, loss, faith and struggle.

In the present day, most of these ladies, members of Morocco’s now dwindling Jewish inhabitants, are gone. However they’ve left behind a wealthy historic trove of northern Judeo-Moroccan Sephardic tradition, handed on from one era to the subsequent by way of oral historical past, that students of Judaism are striving to protect earlier than it disappears.

These fragments of historical past inform highly effective tales from occasions gone, earlier than the Moroccan-Jewish inhabitants that after exceeded 250,000 dwindled to the few hundred now remaining, after a number of waves of emigration.

The ladies have been for hundreds of years confined to Jewish quarters, captivated by a world very distant from theirs, singing ballads that finally turned tonal parts of their tradition. They latched on to music to protect their identities and traditions.

The songs, generally known as “romances,” are a heritage of the Reconquista, or Reconquest, when Christians in medieval Spain waged a centuries-long battle towards Muslim occupation. Because the Reconquista was nearing its finish in 1492, Jews who refused to transform to Christianity have been expelled. A lot of them ended up in Morocco, bringing their Spanish heritage with them.

The songs replicate this historical past, with many taunting the Spanish rulers and clergymen who drove them out. Despite the fact that northern Moroccan Jews spoke a hybrid language of Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic, the songs are in Spanish.

However they don’t seem to be simply political statements. They’re ballads and lullabies with metaphorical lyrics that don’t simply communicate of historical past, however are deeply intertwined with private recollections and cultural traditions.

Oro Anahory-Librowicz, a Moroccan-born knowledgeable in Judeo-Spanish music, who donated 400 recordings to Israel’s Nationwide Library, says that the songs weren’t initially Sephardic however have been realized from Spaniards and retained within the tradition at the same time as they disappeared in mainland Spain.

“It’s a manner of preserving one thing,” she mentioned over a Zoom interview from Montreal, the place she moved in 1973. “Pure transmission isn’t doable in a group that’s dispersed everywhere in the world. It has turn out to be an indication of identification. Ladies acknowledged themselves on this Hispanic heritage and it allowed them to retain a dimension of their Judeo-Hispanic identification.”

One Friday in February, within the hours earlier than sundown and Shabbat, three mates obtained collectively as they’ve on many events on the residence of a pillar in the neighborhood, Sonia Cohen Toledano, which overlooks the bay of Tangier within the northern tip of the nation, just a few miles throughout the ocean from Spain.

In animated dialog, they interrupted each other steadily, typically ending the others’ sentences. Sifting by way of a pile of black and white pictures, yellowed with age, they remembered completely happy occasions and talked concerning the shrinking of their group and their pressing must make the previous a part of the current and in addition of the long run.

The three ladies are among the many fewer than 30 Moroccan Jews now dwelling in Tangier.

And through lots of their gatherings, they find yourself singing romances.

That day, music rose within the air as they clapped and held arms, smiling whereas they sang. The generally joyous and different occasions deeply romantic phrases in Spanish crammed the spacious front room, as the ladies sat on a sofa, sipping Moroccan mint tea, in a second that felt like touring again centuries.

“We heard them at weddings on a regular basis,” mentioned Julia Bengio, 83. “My mom sang in entrance of me however I by no means considered telling her, ‘Come right here, let me write the lyrics down.’” However she did discover cassette recordings of her mom singing and has transcribed the lyrics in order that they received’t be misplaced.

“We have been by no means defined what it was, however later in life we seemed into it and I wish to protect them,” she added. “Merely to not neglect.”

The ladies generally learn from handwritten notes, or referred to YouTube movies of the music to jog their recollections.

One music mocks a priest who impregnates 120 ladies. Within the music, all the ladies give start to ladies, aside from the cook dinner (from a decrease social class), who has a boy. It so occurred that she requested the priest explicitly to get her pregnant, and the story connects to some interpretations of the Talmud that claims that when ladies have sexual pleasure, they conceive boys.

Todas paren niñas, la criada varón.
Ciento veinte cunas, todas en derredor,
Menos la cocinera que en el terrazo colgó.

(“All of them give start to ladies, And the maid to a boy. 100 and twenty cradles, throughout, besides the cook dinner’s little one who held on the terrace.”)

The central message: If their husbands need boys they need to give pleasure earlier than taking pleasure.

Mrs. Cohen Toledano, devoted to maintaining connections with the previous, is a treasure trove of all the things associated to northern Morocco’s Spanish Judeo tradition.

“Earlier than we had aunts, cousins, household right here,” mentioned Mrs. Cohen Toledano, 85, who’s the one certainly one of 16 youngsters in her household who stayed in Morocco. “Slowly, everybody left. We’re so few that we’re shut. We see one another on a regular basis. It’s arduous, however we get used to it.”

Her house is a mini-museum of Spanish-Judeo tradition, a mixture and match of embroideries, art work, images and a group of historic clothes, some over 150 years previous — just about something she may get from departing Jews or that she may dig up in flea markets. “Each time somebody died, they left me one thing,” she mentioned.

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, an American scholar of Judeo-Spanish music at Cambridge College, has spent the final 15 years gathering and archiving the voices of ageing Jews in Morocco. To this point she has inventoried over 2,000 entries (principally recordings, and a few images and movies); a pilot of the archive is on the market on-line. Dr. Paloma Elbaz has household roots that date again 5 generations in Morocco.

When she was a baby dwelling in Puerto Rico, she realized her first romance whereas singing in a youngsters’s choir. That stirred her curiosity in Judeo-Moroccan historical past, and whereas she now not lives in Morocco, she nonetheless visits often and information as a lot as she will.

“If we predict we’ve got no written textual content from the ladies, we’re mistaken,” she mentioned. “Some archives have been sitting in Spain and no one was listening to them.”

“It’s about studying learn how to learn them,” she added. “They despatched every kind of messages. In the event that they have been unhappy about one thing, they’d sing a few of these songs to move a message on to their husbands.”

At some point this winter, she met in Casablanca with Moroccan Jews in a kosher deli, and later others backstage of a live performance, recording all of them. She additionally sought out the youngsters of Alegría Busbib Bengio, a distinguished determine within the metropolis’s Jewish group, who spent the final years of her life handwriting household genealogies and making clothes. She died a number of months in the past, on the age of 91, leaving her youngsters with the duty of preserving all the things she so meticulously collected.

“It will imply betraying her to not share her legacy,” her daughter, Valérie Bengio, informed Dr. Paloma Elbaz within the residence the place her late mom lived from 1967 till her demise. “To go away issues untouched is to allow them to die.”

Mrs. Cohen Toledano’s daughter, Yaëlle Azagury, 51, now lives in Stamford, Conn., however her reference to Morocco stays sturdy. Music is the bridge that connects her to her childhood in Tangier. In an interview, she mentioned she used to sing lullabies to her youngsters that she remembered from her mom, however she doesn’t suppose her three American-born youngsters will keep on the legacy.

“It’s a beautiful heritage,” she mentioned. “The songs must be heard. These ballads are sometimes deeply shifting and a part of the world’s heritage. I really feel like I’m the final chain of a historical past that ends with me.”

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