A history of song Santa Fe Desert Chorale presents Sephardic Legacy
For the second program of its 2016 summer season, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, led by music director Joshua Habermann, presents Sephardic Legacy, which spotlights the musical traditions and heritage of the Jewish people who left Spain after King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I issued the Alhambra Decree in March 1492. The decree gave Jews four months to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. While a majority of the population converted, the rest fled, settling near (relatively speaking) and far — from Portugal, France, and Morocco to eastern parts of the Ottoman Empire. Sephardic Legacy presents songs that span the 13th through the 20th centuries and offer insight into how the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) kept their traditions alive and how they adapted those traditions within their new surroundings. “Songs from the Sephardic repertoire give us a window into the daily life of the Spanish Jews,” said Polly Tapia Ferber, a percussionist who’s one of three guest artists joining the chorale for Sephardic Legacy. “These songs, traditionally passed down by the women of these communities, were the carriers of these stories.” Sephardic music is primarily vocal. When instruments are used, Tapia Ferber said, it’s “to accompany the song.” Those instruments, as well as distinctive attributes of the songs, typically reflect the new cultures the Sephardim became part of following their expulsion from Spain and, in 1496, Portugal. “These ballads went with the Sephardim wherever they settled, and eventually these songs took on musical characteristics of the host country,” Tapia Ferber said. “For example, in Turkey the melodies might have incorporated the use of makam, a compositional tool that forms the basis for melodic development and performance; in the Balkans, the songs might have taken on asymmetrical rhythms. Lyrics,” she added, “were often superimposed onto local melodies. The Sephardic communities absorbed the local music in these various environments, and we now hear that reflected in later Sephardic music. This Jewish diaspora resulted in a very diverse and rich musical heritage.” Tapia Ferber — a Santa Fe resident who has Sephardic lineage on both sides of her family, which has been in New Mexico since the 17th century — specializes in hand percussion from the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa, and Spanish Andalucía. In addition to giving private lessons in percussion, she teaches lecture classes in world music at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. For Sephardic Legacy, she’s accompanying the chorale ona darabuka (a traditional hand drum with an hourglass shape), a rigg (a Middle Eastern tambourine), and a frame drum. “The darabuka is played throughout the Middle East and the Balkans,” Tapia Ferber said. “Depending on the region and occasion, it’s played primarily in the folk and popular genres. The frame drum is an ancient instrument still used today, especially in the classical and folk genres.
These ballads went with the Sephardim wherever they settled, and eventually these songs took on musical characteristics of the host country. — percussionist Polly Tapia Ferber
Sephardic women typically used the frame drum to accompany their singing.” Another instrument that’s used to accompany Sephardic music is the oud — a stringed instrument that shares a common ancestor with the lute — which Morocco-based musician Fattah Abbou plays during the program.
Vocalist and scholar Vanessa Paloma, who, like Abbou, is based in Morocco, also joins the chorale for Sephardic Legacy, performing romances, ritual songs, and more. “I’ll be singing both with the chorale as a soloist in choral arrangements and with Fattah and Polly in a traditional music ensemble,” Paloma says.
Paloma, who was born in Atlanta and has lived around the country and the world, earned a master’s degree in music from Indiana University, Bloomington, specializing in medieval Spanish music. Her initial interest, she said, was in secular monody “from the time of Al-Andalus, when three cultures [Christian, Muslim, and Jewish] lived and made music together.” After studying for a year in Jerusalem, however, she decided to focus “on Sephardic music and the Judeo-Spanish aspect of that music.” From 2007 to 2008, Paloma was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar to Morocco — a country, she said, “that loves to preserve its traditions to the letter of the law, which means this musical repertoire has been preserved beautifully, much more than the eastern Sephardic repertoire.” Sephardic music that comes from Morocco is typically “more ancient,” Paloma added, “while the Turkish and Greek traditions are more mixed, with many newer pieces that have become very popular.”
In addition to singing, Paloma will play a replica of a 13th-century French troubadour harp. “The harp is found in illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages in Spain,” Paloma said, “so we know it was used in the music of the day. But it’s hard to say if it was often or occasional; we can only conjecture.” Given the vocal nature of Sephardic music, however, Paloma points out that “the narratives are the most important elements, as they were used to convey societal morals and to celebrate the particularities of Sephardic culture and celebrations, as Sephardim were a minority culture throughout the Mediterranean basin.”
Sephardic Legacy is being performed at the New Mexico History Museum, in conjunction with the exhibition Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities, which opened in May and runs through December. Part of the exhibition focuses on conversos — specifically, Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism but eventually left Spain to escape the Inquisition, which began in 1478 and involved violent scrutiny of the conversos’ faithfulness. Many conversos made their way (via forged documentation or other undercover means) to New Spain (Mexico). Spain’s inquisitors, however, also made their way to the New World, and beginning in the late 16th century, conversos fled again to present-day New Mexico.
“Santa Fe’s connection to Sephardic music is through its long history of Jews in New Mexico,” Paloma said. “[Sephardic Legacy] presents a parallel sonorous world between romances that exist both in New Mexico, in its oral tradition, and in the Sephardic Mediterranean. The melodies have changed and evolved, but the textual root is present.”