Songs of Life

Music of the Sephardim

by Vivian J. Stotesbury

A somber oud taksim over a guitar tremolo introduces “Los Bilbilíkos,” setting a dark, pensive mood. Just as we have drawn our attention inward, focusing on this, the music pauses and Judy Frankel’s clear soprano voice rings out over what is now a spirited oud line. The lyric tells of nightingales that sing to those who are suffering from love, including the singer, herself. The melody is repeated by the oud. Then two more verses are sung with an increasingly elaborate oud accompaniment. Now the woman warns a young girl of the dangers of love, then begs to die to be released from her own pain. The song ends with the oud playing the melody.

A strong, plucked note on the oud is answered by a short musical phrase on a recorder. This sequence is repeated and represents the introduction to Canto Antiguo’s rendition of “Adiyo Kerida.” The remainder of the song is supported by continuous arpeggio on the oud. The fluid motion of the plucked notes, in and out, over and under their chords, undergirds Bonita Jaros’ crystalline soprano singing the melody, a high baritone harmony, and counterpoint on recorder. Together, these elements evoke a sense of time past and a yearning for something lost.

Selma Mizrahi, from Rhodes (1933)

These are descriptions of two recordings of Sephardic music, a musical genre which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest with the quincentennial of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain. Who are the Sephardim? Where did they come from? What part have they played in Middle Eastern culture? These questions have been addressed by scholars in recent centuries and their findings and conclusions fill volumes. My brief answers are not meant to be definitive and are intended only as a means of giving some contextual background to the focus of this survey, Sephardic folk music.

Sephardic Jews are defined as those “whose ancestors once lived in Spain or neighboring Portugal” (Raphael, p. 1) from the second to the fifteenth century. Their primary influence was “the fertile commingling of three civilizations in Iberia in medieval times,” (Gerber, p. xi) represented by migrant Jews from Jerusalem and Babylon, Christian Visigoths and later Catholics, and the Muslim empire. This diversity existed from 711, when the Muslims first entered Spain, until 1492 when Granada fell to the Catholics and the Jews were expelled from the country. A more recent theory, based on greater available volume and linguistic evidence, espouses that instead of coming from Palestine, the Jews who settled in Spain were primarily converts from the Berber tribes of North Africa. In either case, Berber influence has had a significant impact on Sephardic folklore (Wexler, p. 230).

Regardless of the details of their arrival, their expulsion in August 1492 is well documented. The progress of their diaspora scattered the Sephardic Jews (or Sephardim) across North Africa, returning many to Morocco but also found them going to Tripoli, Tunis, and Cairo; to Gaza, Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed to the east; to Genoa, Leghorn, Rome and Naples in Italy; to Athens, Salonika, Sofia, and Belgrade in Greece and the Balkans; and to Smyrna and Constantinople. The Sephardim joined longtime Jewish residents of Byzantine lands (now occupied by Ottoman Turks), known locally as Romaniot or Gregos (Raphael, p. 131). Currently, most Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi: the Jews of France, Germany and Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews have historically been more integrated into local non-Jewish cultures than Ashkenazim (Rich, p. 1). Because of this fundamental difference, the cultural impact of the various host nations on Sephardim tends to be greater. Each land the Sephardim visited or inhabited represented an opportunity to enrich their culture. Therefore, Sephardic music is a rich amalgam of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences.

Sephardic music resolved into two distinct groups. Sacred music, following the liturgical calendar, is sung in Hebrew by men.1 Secular music reflected daily life, what it is to be a good Jew, love, marriage, betrayal; and the larger life cycle common to Homo sapiens: birth, growth, aging, death. While not exclusive to, it is primarily sung by women, and in the vernacular (Castel, p. ix). It is further classified into romances (ballads) and cantigas (songs).

This folk music is usually sung in Ladino, a language which closely resembles medieval Spanish but may in fact be the combination of Hebrew grammar and Ibero-Romance (Castilian) words (Wexler, p. xvi). Both Sephardic Jews who speak it and nonnative observers use the name ‘Ladino’ to designate the spoken Judeo-Spanish language, imprecise as this term is (Wexler, p. 86). The Jews carried Ladino with them when they left Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. While immigrants learned to speak the local language in order to function in that society, they maintained Ladino as the language of their own culture and folklore. Ladino was the common element of Sephardic Jews in all nations and remained so until it was virtually wiped out during the 20th century (Gerber, p. xv).

Because of its wide dispersal and therefore evolution, written Ladino varies greatly in regard to spelling and pronunciation. While many individual spoken words can be recognized as Spanish, the written forms can be very different. Kerida and querida (beloved), ken kere and quien quiere (who wants), ombre and hombre (man) are a few examples of Ladino and Spanish forms. Words vary within Ladino, itself, e.g. adío, adijo and adiyo (good-bye, farewell). There is no standard orthography; the correctness of spelling is dependent on the origins of the writer and is the basis of much (sometimes heated) discussion.

While an extensive and growing body of scholarly work on the Sephardic experience as a whole exists, that on their music is limited. There have been several efforts to permanently record the rich heritage of folk music which has been passed down orally, generation to generation, before it is erased forever, scattered by the Holocaust and subsumed by the emerging world culture. These individual collections each represent only a single facet of this folk music, generally gathered from the authors’ older relatives or occasionally reflecting a path of research conceived and followed by the author. To widen the exposure of these songs, Sephardic musicians have made commercial recordings of ancient and modern songs and now concertize Sephardic music.

From the Flory Jagoda songbook, Tara Publications, reprinted with permission.

A romance (romanza), one of the two major categories of Sephardic folk music, is a type of ballad which is essentially a long narrative poem (Apel, p. 70, 736). The point of the lyric is usually of some legendary or historical interest. A typical story can be found in “Tres Hermanicas” (Three Little Sisters). In this saga, two sisters are married and one goes astray. Her father is ashamed of her so he builds a tower (construction details included) on the island of Rhodes to hide her away. A man hears about this girl and goes to great lengths, traveling by various means (all recounted) to find her. She has to let down her hair so he can climb up to her. Then she feeds him when he attains the tower. When she goes out to the courtyard to fetch water, she falls asleep. A nobleman sees her and kisses her on each cheek and on her heart. She wakes and declares her undying love. (It is, after all, the telling of the story which is important.)

Another popular romanza is the story of a king who overhears his beautiful queen singing about her true love, the two sons she had by her lover, the two sons she had by the king, and her preferential treatment of the former. When the king confronts her, she dissembles, saying that she was only recounting a dream. The king is not taken in and sentences the queen and her lover to death. This lyric is known in a 9/8 setting as “El rey por muncha madruga.” The Bosnian version is sung slowly to a different melody, not adhering to a strict meter and is entitled with the lover’s name, “Anderleto.” This is one of many instances of a single text appearing with different music from disparate geographic regions.

The cantiga2 is the other major category of Sephardic folk music. These are the songs that deal with everyday life: cooking, cleaning, holiday celebrations, the pain of loss. They are often rhythmic rather than melodic and many times are dance tunes. The topics addressed are more diverse and concise than in the romanzas, ranging from weighty to lighthearted. “Siete hijos tiene Hanna,” is about Hannah’s seven sons who were tempted by the king to renounce their religion by taking the throne (they refuse). A less serious tone is taken in both “El Decolté,” wherein a girl is chastised for parading around with a low-cut neckline, and in “Madre miya si mi muero,” which tells of a girl who hopes everyone who ignored her will be sorry when she dies.

Ay Sarica Bre” is a lighthearted cantiga from the Monastir region that can be found on Judy Frankel’s album, Silver & Gold. In it, the singer asks little Sara to bring some water, for which she will be rewarded with shoes from Unkapan. The playfulness of the words is repeated in the musical arrangement. The oud taksim, played by John Bilezikjian, is lively and quickly-developed; the oud then states the melody. The three eight-bar lines of the verse are each repeated in this order: 1, 1, 2, 3, 2, 3. In the first couplet of each verse, John uses a five-note riff that keeps the music moving briskly. After four verses, the song concludes with an improvisation, still lively and still featuring the oud.

In order to maintain the authentic sound of their performance, several Sephardic musicians have turned to John Bilezikjian, celebrated oudist, to accompany and assist them in their endeavors. He is also oudist for “Los Tanyaderos,” (the players) a group dedicated to the preservation of the traditional ethnic music of endangered cultures, which specializes in Sephardic music. While not Jewish, Mr. Bilezikjian’s Turkish-Armenian background gives him a similar cultural context. The Armenian diaspora is similar to that of the Jews and their assimilation of cultural attributes is very often from identical sources. His musical expertise and technique adds depth and complexity to these performances. Indeed, both recordings described at the beginning of this article feature John Bilezikjian on the oud. John arranged the harmony in “Adiyo Kerida,” basing it on chord structures used by the group.

Another effort to preserve Sephardic folk music is The Flory Jagoda Song Book: Memories of Sarajevo. This is readily available in print form and also as musical recordings. Ms. Jagoda, a native of Sarajevo, grew up in Vlaseniça, [Bosnia] Yugoslavia, where she learned the songs from her maternal grandmother who raised her. Flory also learned to play accordion and guitar, both with which she accompanies herself. She married an American soldier at the close of World War II and moved to Ohio. Since then she has passed this music, as well as her own compositions, on to her children and grandchildren with whom she regularly performs (Jagoda, p.14).

Sephardic music is monophonic,3 a characteristic it shares with Middle Eastern music as a whole. This is not surprising, considering its genesis in the oral tradition. While monophony in no way implies monotony, many modern arrangements are actually homophonic4 in order to provide more interest for the listener. Often the musical accompaniment will be linear rather than harmonic, which is the prevalent style in Western music. Simple chord progressions and harmonies may be added to make a piece more accessible to western ears.

One romance, “Nocés, Nocés, Buenas Nocés,” recorded by Flory Jagoda on her album Memories of Sarajevo, is easily recognizable as monophonic since it consists of a solo voice. In some places, Ms. Jagoda employs as many as five or six tones in place of a single quarter note. These elaborate embellishments add elegance to the text, which tells of three unmarried sisters’ attitudes toward love and marriage. A recording of “Noches, Noches, Buenas Noches” by Canto Antiguo features a homophonic arrangement. The mood is the same, but the presentation entirely different. The song opens with an introduction on the oud, again played by Mr. Bilezikjian. The intricate vocal is there, this time sung over an oud tremolo and punctuated by an occasional zil ring. The second verse is played on a recorder (wooden flute) still over the oud. The third verse reverts to vocal with the addition of a recorder obbligato.5 The voice, oud and flute each continue on its own path to conclude on the same note.

Not all monophonic music is vocal; it can just as easily be played on an oud, flute, violin or other musical instrument. (This is not meant to imply that playing any of these instruments is easy.) John Bilezikjian frequently performs these songs. “Ah! El novio no kere dinero” is a cantiga about a bridegroom who decries material wealth for a bride of good luck and joyful demeanor. “Il Bastidor” (The Vest) is of Turkish origin and tells of a woman who has no time to embroider a ceremonial vest for her husband. It is beautifully rendered on John’s oud even without the lyric.

Mr. Bilezikjian performs Sephardic songs in addition to his extensive repertoire of Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Russian and other music. At one recent concert, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute presented the John Bilezikjian Ensemble performing the music of Sepharad and the Middle East. He is praised for playing the songs “as they should be heard.” John brings an additional element to the Sephardic music he performs. Where Flory Jagoda uses folk elements of the Balkans and Judy Frankel those of Spain, John Bilezikjian plays these songs in the Turkish style.

According to John, “Elements of Orientale dance are inherent in Sephardic music.” He includes Sephardic songs in his performances at local restaurants and night clubs. While not originally written for dancing, they do provide contiguous variety and an opportunity for those who enjoy Çifte Telli style dancing to do so.

As this music slips through the centuries, shifting and changing, new songs are added to the repertoire. “O Mis Hermanos,” sung by Judy Frankel, is a contemporary romanza memorializing the Greek Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The guitar accompaniment is strummed and plucked in a style evocative of Flamenco — another musical genre with its roots in Moorish Spain. Hence, a new theme in a traditional form with a traditional sound.

Transplanted text appears again in the recording of “La Comida La Mañana” from Silver & Gold. The selection begins with an oud taksim greater than one minute in length (long for a five minute cut). We relax, the intricate movement of the improvisation carrying us farther and farther toward some mystical destination. The taksim ends and a compelling 7/8 rhythm begins, the dumbec and tambourine joining the oud. Enter the melody on violin and vocal parts, and suddenly we realize we’re hearing “Laz,” the popular Turkish folk song with a Ladino lyric! (Incidentally, all of the instruments on this cut are played by John Bilezikjian.)

Flory Jagoda has become a focal point for the collection of Sephardic folk music from Yugoslavia. Through her performances, she often rekindles others’ memories who then send their stories or lyrics on to her. Not content to let these songs fade away, Ms. Jagoda’s efforts to perpetuate the repertoire cause her to “call upon my recollections of the authentic Bosnian musical style of the late 1930’s and 1940’s” (Jagoda, p. 47) to compose new music. My own favorite of these is “El diya de Purim.” Recorded by La Rondinella, this lively cantiga relates the origin of Purim, the preparation of special treats, and the songs and dances children traditionally performed in exchange for those sweets. I challenge anyone to listen to this song without at least tapping their toe in time with the music.

All music is better when it can be experienced at a live performance. I feel this is particularly true for Sephardic music because it is so essentially full of life: daily life, celebration, mourning. These are the songs used by women to get themselves through the day, whether it is whiling away the time during the drudgery of housework, sharing the joys of a wedding with family and friends, or calming a child to sleep with a lullaby. Since most of us are not blessed with a Sephardic grandmother who sings, our next best bet is to listen to recordings — maybe even learn the songs and sing them to ourselves. Of course, the next time you see John Bilezikjian you can ask him to play Sephardic folk music for you. I’m sure he’d oblige.


1. Although outside the scope of this paper, I do feel it worth mentioning that John Bilezikjian produced and recorded a collection of sacred music with Cantor Isaac Behar, Senior Hazzan of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth in Los Angeles. The musical recording and accompanying book by Cantor Behar are both entitled Sephardic Sabbath Chants and are available from Tara Publications.

2. Cantiga: “A Spanish monophonic song of the 13th century.” (Apel, p. 129)

3. Monophony: “Music consisting of a single melodic line without additional parts or accompaniment.” (Apel, p. 539)

4. Homophony: “Music in which one voice leads melodically, being supported by an accompaniment in chordal or a slightly more elaborate style.” (Apel, p. 390)

5. Obbligato: “Obligatory…part that must not be omitted.” (Apel, p. 584)


Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Castel, Nico. The Nico Castel Ladino Song Book. Cedarhurst, N.Y.: Tara Publications, 1981.

Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Gerber, Jane S. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Jagoda, Flory. The Flory Jagoda Songbook: Memories of Sarajevo. Cedarhurst, N.Y.: Tara Publications, 1993.

Raphael, Chaim. The Road from Babylon: The Story of Sephardi and Oriental Jews. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Rich, Tracey. “Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.” Judaism 101. (29 Dec 1996).

Wexler, Paul. The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.


Canto Antiguo. Musical Traditions of the Sephardim: A Medieval View of Judeo-Spanish Song. (Compact Disc Ti-215). Somerville, MA: Titanic Records, 1993.

Frankel, Judy. Sephardic Songs of Love and Hope (Canticas Sephardis de Amor Y Esperansa). (Compact Disc CD 157). New York: Global Village Music, 1992.

Frankel, Judy. Silver & Gold (Plata y Oro). [Compact Disc]. San Francisco, CA.: Judy Frankel, 1997.

Jagoda, Flory. Songs of My Grandmother (Kantikas Di Mi Nona). (Cassette Recording C139). New York: Global Village Music, 1989.

Jagoda, Flory. Memories of Sarajevo. (Cassette Recording C143). New York: Global Village Music, 1991.

Jagoda, Flory. The Grandmother Sings (La Nona Kanta). (Cassette Recording C155). New York: Global Village Music, 1992.

La Rondinella. Songs of the Sephardim: Traditional Music of the Spanish Jews. (Compact Disc DIS-80105). New York: Dorian Discovery, 1993.

La Rondinella. A Song of David: Music of the Sephardim and Renaissance Spain. (Compact Disc DIS-80130). New York: Dorian Discovery, 1995.

Vivian Stotesbury became aware of Middle Eastern dance and music in the Spring of 1991 when she heard a student of John Bilezikjian’s playing the oud in the middle of a field in central Texas. Since that time she has worked on improving her skills as an audience (that oft overlooked part of performance), occasionally writing reviews, and sometimes appearing on stage as ‘Prop Dude-ess’ for the Southern California dance troupe, Raks Keltistani. Vivian holds a B.S. in Computer Science and works in the telecommunications industry so she can afford to patronize the local ethnic restaurants, attend belly dance festivals, and pay for dumbeg lessons.

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