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About Judith Cohen
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While Yiddish culture vultures debate whether the Klezmer Revival has ended, a revival of another genre of Jewish music has been taking place since the early 1990s; a revival of Jewish music composed before the 19th Century, sometimes as far back as the Middle Ages. For lack of a better descriptive term, I refer to this movement as the Early Jewish Music revival, borrowing the term "early music" used to describe compositions from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras.
Early Jewish music revivalists cannot draw upon contemporaneous recordings of the repertoire, unlike their Klezmer revivalist (and post-revivalist) colleagues. Instead, these musicians must travel directly to the source where the music was composed, in the hope of stumbling across ancient transcriptions or musicians who have been handed down the repertoire orally.
Ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen earned her Ph.D. by travelling throughout the Mediterranean basin, where she collected songs dating back to the Middle Ages. She has a particular interest in the songs of Sephardic Jewish communities. That interest brought her to Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, and Israel, past and present home to the larger Sephardic Jewish communities. Although Judith's interest started as an academic project, that interest has blossomed into a successful artistic endeavor. Judith regularly gives lecture/performances on the music she has collected, with an emphasis on the music of Sephardic Jews dating as far back as pre-Inquisition times. I had the opportunity to attend one of these lecture/performances, and will try to share some of the knowledge Judith shared with the audience.
As the middle of the second millenium approached, the Sephardic world was based in northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, in what are now Morocco, Algeria, Portugal, and Spain. The language spoken by Sephardic Jews was Judeo-Spanish, a language comparable to Yiddish (Yiddish, being a Judaized version of primarily German). The language took the form of a word for word translation of Hebrew into the Judeo-Spanish vernacular. So, for example, the Hebrew phrase Ha-Leila Ha-Zeh (in English, "this night") would appear as a literal translation ("the night, the this") in Judeo-Spanish.
Songs that were popular in pre-Inquisition Spain's Sephardic community tended to be songs sung in non-Jewish Spanish communities. Often these songs were of a bawdy nature, making parody of women and priests. The lyrics to these songs were transcribed, but not the melodies. These songs remained in Sephardic communities after Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, and remained on the peninsula in communities of Crypto-Jews and their descendents. However, the melodies to the lyrics changed, incorporating the music of the new homelands of Spanish refugees. So, Sephardic Jews who settled in Greece adopted Greek melodies to these older tunes. Moreover, newer songs were written in these exile communities, sung in Judeo-Spanish to melodies borrowed heavily from Greek, Turkish, Balkan, and Moroccan traditional music. Sephardic Romances (love songs), which comprises much of today's Sephardic music repertoire, were composed in these exile lands during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In addition to her lecture/performances, Judith has recorded or performed on nearly a dozen recordings. Her most recent recording, "Dans mon chemin j'ai rencontré: Songs of Meetings and Travelling, [Radio Canada/Interdisc (Prix Marcel Blouin 1994)], features Judith's amazingly talented daughter, Tamar (born in 1986), and fellow ethnomusicologist Robb Simms, performing songs from the 13th - 20th centuries grouped around the theme of meetings and encounters. In addition to traditional Sephardic songs, the recording features tunes from French Canada (Quebec and the Maritimes), France, Italy, Spain, England and Bosnia. Cohen even adds a few Yiddish songs to round out her collection of European and North African music.
Jewish music enthusiasts will be most interested in the Sephardic songs, although there are several standout tracks from the non-Jewish world including the title track (whose English translation is "On My Way I Met . . ."), an acapella duet with Tamar from Bulgaria, "U komshi svatba ima" (imagine your eight year old daughter singing Bulgarian music!), and the joyful "Mio amor anda a la guerra," from Lombardy, Italy, and similarly joyful "Fel shara," from Alexandria, Egypt.
Before describing the many fine Sephardic songs on this CD, it is important to note at the outset that Judith does not believe in performing these songs with a large ensemble. Rather, the instrumental accompaniment is deliberately simple and sparse, which according to Judith, was the way most of these songs were originally performed. Thus, this recording sounds quite different from Savina Yannatou's recordings (such as Spring in Salonka, which I previously reviewed), although no less compelling.
My favorite Sephardic track was a song now widely performed, "No quero, madre" (entitled also in Turkish, "Istemem babacigim"). With her daughter, Tamar, Judith sings this 20th Century gypsy song about a woman who rejects several suitors until she comes across "the Drunkard," who is more appealing to the protagonist. Judith backs the singing on derbukka, along with Rob Simms on Oud. Also of note are "Adonde vais, Senor Yitzhak" (where are you going Mr. Yitzhak), a song of Moroccan Jewish origin, where the lyrics include the various towns Yitzhak is travelling to; and a Bosnian Sephardic child's song, "Chichi bunichi." Judith rounds off the album with a version of "Der Terk in America," a klezmer tune performed solo on the recorder, giving the song a more Western and medieval sound.
Although "Dans mon chemin j'ai rencontré" has been out for three years, the music is no less compelling. And for those wanting to hear what Judith has been up to lately, a new CD is due to be released in the coming months. Who knows what musical gems Judith will bring to light this time around!
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Last revised 08 November, 2014.