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George Robinson, GRComm@ writes for the Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Judaism," was published in hardcover by Pocket Books, March 2000. You can find out more at his website.

Articles by George Robinson, available on the KlezmerShack, are:

2004 Chanukah Roundup, by George Robinson, sent 2 Dec 2004.

The Year's Best: the annual "best of" column, by George Robinson, sent 25 Nov 2002.

A Religious Experience: A roundup of recent Jewish liturgical music, by George Robinson, sent 26 Aug 2002.

More Than Klezmer: A sampler of Yiddish vaudeville, folk music and even art song, sent 9 Aug 2002.

Spring Sephardic Music Roundup, send 3 May 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 1, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 2, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Best of 2001 - Hanukah suggestions, sent 7 Dec 2001.

Isaac Stern: Beyond the Fiddle to the Heart of a Man, sent out 5 Oct 2001.

Sounds for the Jewish New Year, sent out 23 Nov 2001.

Slobin on Beregovski (and the survival of Klezmer Music), sent out 30 Aug 2001.

Women of Valor, sent out 15 Aug 2001.

Shabbat, for Starters, sent out 3 Jun 2001.

From Liturgical Rock to the Postmodern, sent out 15 May 2001.

A Sephardic Passover, sent out 25 Mar 2001.

Oh, Klezmer, sent out 18 Mar 2001.

Jewish Classical Music, sent out 1 Mar 2001.

Best of 2000, send out 23 Dec 2000.

Holiday Music for Hanukkah, 6 Dec 2000.

Kidding on the Square, 9/29/00, from the Jewish Week

From the Catskills to Canada, 6/15/00, from the Jewish Week

Sephardic Survey, 05/00, from the Jewish Week

1999 Klezmer Wrapup, from the Jewish Week

Sisters in Swing, 12/15/99, from the Jewish Week

Bending the Genres, October 1998, from the Jewish Week

The Klezmer Drums of Passion, September 1998, from the Jewish Week

Drums of Passion, summer, 1998, from the Jewish Week

Steve Fischbach, reviews two CDs of Jewish-Spanish music from Salonica, 10/98.

Dr. Judith R. Cohen contributes A short bibliography of Sephardic Music, condensed from several other bibliographies by the author, special to the Klezmer Shack, 3/99.

Ari Davidow reviews Ruth Yaakov Ensemble / Shaatnez

other klezmer articles
on the Internet

Sephardic Survey

originally published in the Jewish Week, May 20, 2000.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

by George Robinson,

Note: Don't click on any links until the entire file loads, or else the links won't work. I apologize for the inconvenience. webmaster

Azose, Isaac / The Liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth
Ben-Zaken, Etty / The Bride Unfastens Her Braids, the Groom Faints
Fortuna / Cantigas
Lewitová, Jana and Rudolf Minský; / Sephardic Songs
Rossi, Salamone / The Songs of Solomon
Saltiel, David / Jewish Spanish Songs of Thessaloniki
Songs for the Bride and Groom
Yannatou, Savina / Spring in Salonika

This month's column is a bit of a departure from the norm. There is a huge body of Jewish music that is neglected in these pages and, I daresay, on the East Coast, perhaps the entire United States. Given that the first Jews to arrive in what became the United States were Sephardim on the run from the Inquisition's Brazilian representatives, it is ironic that the music of the Sephardic Jews gets so little attention here.

Not everyone is a party to that neglect. Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah Music, a Los Angeles-based store with a mind-boggling array of Jewish recordings and music, has made it his business (literally) to bring a wide range of Sephardic and Ladino musics to American listeners. The records reviewed below were selected by Simon from his considerable stock and represent a small sampling of his favorites. Several of these records are distributed in the U.S. exclusively by Hatikvah. All of them are available from Simon, who can be reached by phone at (323) 655-7083, or by e-mail at Hatikvah Music">Hatikvah Music. You can also order them at Hatikvah's website,

As for the music itself, two elements unite most of these records -- the emotional power of minor intervals and the expressiveness of the human voice.

Azose, Isaac: "The Liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth" (privately produced).Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is a Rhodesli Jew synagogue. The music of the Greek Jews -- as you will learn from several of the CDS in this column, is as different from that of other Sephardi musical traditions as the Gerer Hasidic tunes are from those of the Modzitzer, and the Rhodes tradition is equally distinct from that of, say Salonika. Judging from this 2-CD set, these compositions are wonderful vehicles for cantorial virtuosity but not to the exclusion of congregational singing, unlike the work of the great "Golden Age" cantors. Cantor Azose smiles out from the cover of this CD, a grandfatherly Ed Begley lookalike, but he has a powerful, flexible voice that belies his 68 years and recent retirement. The set has a pleasantly homemade quality, with the cantor introducing each selection with a brief explanation, then launching into an a cappella rendition of the setting. A rich musical tapestry in an austere setting. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Ben-Zaken, Etty: "The Bride Unfastens Her Braids, the Groom Faints: Ladino Love Songs" (New Albion). Torrid stuff, this. Ben-Zaken has one of those husky, smoky altos like the great flamenco cantaoras, and she wields it with real power. The instrumental sound, from the Ensemble Yatán Atán, is highly reminiscent of Renaissance dance music, like many bands in this genre. A smoldering recording that manages to bring up unfamiliar material and avoids the air of sameness that too often creeps into recording in this genre by, shall we say, visitors. Rating: 5 stars.

Fortuna: "Cantigas" (Sonopress); "Mazal" (MCD). Two CDS by a Ladino diva. Fortuna, who records in Brazil, reminds me of Judy Collins. She has a pretty but inflexible voice, sings with a complete lack of emotion and a minimum of expressivity. Both these albums are full of folky, new-agey settings that frame her voice with a lot of echo. If you care for that sort of thing, these will be to your taste and you can add a couple of stars. Rating: 2 stars.

Lewitová, Jana and Rudolf Minský: "Sephardic Songs" (Classics Arta). No accident that this set is on a Czech classical label. A studiously authentic recording like this serves as another reminder of how much this particular tradition sounds like Renaissance dance music to my untrained ears. Lewitová is a graceful, elegant singer (although with a little Slavonic wobble) and she gets the maximum emotional impact out of some very lively (albeit somewhat more familiar) material. Expert accompaniment. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Rossi, Salamone: "The Songs of Solomon" (Panton). This recording is sort of the odd man out; Rossi belongs to the written classical tradition rather than the folk tradition of most of the music here. That said, he is undoubtedly the most famous Jewish classical composer working prior to the 19th century. An Italian Jew, he was a student and protégé of Claudio Monteverdi. His best known works are choral and this splendid recording by the Kühn Chamber Soloists and Symposium Musicum, under the direction of Pavel Kühn, released in the Czech Republic in the mid-'90s highlights his finest accomplishment, a 33-song cycle of liturgical music. Rossi's settings have the elegance of simplicity, with haunting harmonics and the Kühn singers perform them with a combination and restrain that allows them to speak for themselves. Rating: 5 stars.

Saltiel, David: "Jewish Spanish Songs of Thessaloniki" (Oriente). Authenticity is not a guarantor of musical value, but this recording has plenty of both. Saltiel is not a professional singer, although he is backed here by professional musicians. But he is an inheritor of a unique musical tradition of Judeo-Spanish folk songs passed down through generations. His style is full of ornate melismatic phrases and a driving pulse. The result is Ladino folk music of raw power, moving in both senses of the word. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

"Songs for the Bride and Groom" (Oriental). Yet another, very different musical tradition. This is an extraordinary recording and I don't know a darned thing about it. Apparently it's some kind of a field recording of Yemenite wedding music, half women's songs for the bride, half men's songs for the groom. But there is no information on the CD jacket other than song titles (in Hebrew). But the music is riveting, moving effortlessly between pulsing, richly harmonized choral pieces and driving percussion-backed numbers that recall the great Nubian pop singer Ali Hassan Kuban. My only misgiving about the record is that it is under a half-hour long, which costs it a half-star. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Yannatou, Savina: "Spring in Salonika" (Lyra). Yannatou is what Fortuna is trying to be, a powerful singer who is alternately ethereal and plaintive, with an instrument that is expressive far beyond an apparently limited range. The musicians backing her are sensitive accompanists and gifted improvisers, particularly violinist Kyriakos Gouvéntas and reed player Yannis Kaimákis. Poised somewhere between folk and classical, this is a gem, a prime example of how to keep a tradition alive without performing musical taxidermy. Rating: 5 stars.

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Contents copyright © 2000 by George Robinson. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 17 December, 2008.