Vanessa Paloma Interview, Part Two

Vanessa Paloma Interview, Part Two

In the second part of my interview with Vanessa Paloma, we talked about a musical tradition which thrived in Spain prior to 1492, and which still survives, here and there, in parts of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

“Do you sing Judeo-Arabic as well as Judeo-Spanish songs?”

“I have been singing Judeo-Spanish songs. But recently, I've started learning some Judeo-Arabic songs.”

“Can you speak a little about the differences between the two?”

“Some of the Judeo-Arabic music is based on Andalusian music, which is said to come from the 10th and 11th centuries. It's the classical music of the Arabic tradition, but it was handed down to us by Jews, because during certain periods, Muslims weren’t allowed to play music. In the synagogue rite of Morocco the nusach (style of prayer) comes from Andalusian classical music. Arabic music has quarter tones and is more modal than the music of Christian Europe. It's not about major and minor scales but about patterns that repeat. This is similar to the way medieval psalmody was built on sets of melodic motifs.”

“Does this music change and evolve over time?”

“In Judeo-Arabic and Arabic music from the courts of Cordoba and Granada, the music is set in stone, but it wasn’t written down until recent times. With the popular song, it's different, the melodies do evolve over time. They're ornamented, they shift, it breathes a lot more.”

“How did the Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic traditions influence each other?”

“There is definitely influence in both directions, and you can clearly hear it in the music. For example, you will hear Arabic modes in Judeo-Spanish music. Sometimes the text is old but the music is newer, so there may be a song that sounds Turkish, for example, but with a more recent Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) text. In the Judeo-Spanish songs of Morocco, Greece, or Turkey, sometimes the singers add ornamentation that's very Arabic-influenced. And in the Arabic music of northern Morocco, you can hear a lot of Spanish influence. Music is very porous and therefore makes a wonderful medium for cultural exchange. Music doesn't have borders.”

“What can you tell me about the traditional instruments?”

“The earliest pictures of these instruments that we have are in the Cantigas de Santa Maria from the court of King Alfonso X. This is a manuscript that has around five hundred songs. Every ten songs, there's a miniature with instruments. It has Arabic instruments as well as European ‘Christian’ instruments, and we know that many of the musicians in Alfonso X's court were Jewish.”

“Tell me more about these pictures.”

“Well, there's The oud, which became the lute; the kanun, which became the psaltery, the viel, a bowed string instrument; and then a smaller one, the rebab, which is a very thin bowed instrument with two or three strings. They also had a portable organ, the organo portatif. It's a pipe organ with a bellows on the side, and it sits on a table. There are all sorts of percussion instruments, frame drums -- a frame with a skin on one or both sides -- “


“Yes, tambourines... and reed instruments... And there are flutes, both recorders and wooden transverse flutes. And of course the harp, which sits on the lap, although it got a little larger by the fifteenth century. The harps had gut strings. The earlier you go, they fewer strings they had. Toward the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they had more strings and became chromatic.”

“Tell me about the harp you play.”

“The harp i have is a copy of a Romanesque French harp, perhaps from the twelfth century. It was made in Vermont by Lynn Lewandowsky. She copied it from a stone carving on a romanesque church in Southern France.”

“What about the instruments that were used for fanfares, parades, and outdoor venues?”

“Oh yes – for those kinds of events, they used horns, trumpets, and sackbutts as well, as they were very loud. The sackbutt is a double-piped reed instrument. It makes a sound like a bagpipe, with a bass note underneath from one of the pipes, and you play the melody with the other.”

“And the songs? The texts? What do they tell us?”

"There are three different kinds of songs: romances, balladas, and coplas. The romances are like segments of epic poems. They're songs that tell a story. One or two lines of melody, with maybe a hundred lines of text. This is basically the kind of song bards would sing. They're very old. They tell stories of historical events that really happened. Within these romances, a lot of the texts have to do with the faithful wife who waits for her husband."

“Obviously, that sounds like Homer. Is Homer the model?”

“I would say it's the same tradition.”

“What other themes are treated in these songs?”

“Some of them have to do with girls that were captured by the Moors. The girl's brother comes and wants to marry her. She says, you can marry me but you must respect my honor. He takes her back to their land and she starts crying when she sees the place where she grew up. They realize they're siblings. The captured maiden theme, the rescued maiden, warrior maidens, the faithful wife, the unfaithful wife... These latter two are sung at weddings. Sometimes the stories are mixed together, sometimes we have the same story in Turkey, Morocco, Greece, and Bulgaria, but with different music. The little old ladies in some of these places still know how to sing truncated versions of these songs.”

“What about the balladas?”

“They're mostly in the Eastern Sephardic tradition – Bulgaria, Egypt, Rhodes, Greece, Turkey, Romania. They're little love songs with refrains that tell short stories, like little gems. “

“How old are these songs?”

“Not as old as the romances. The balladas date from after the expulsion.”

“And the coplas?”

“These are ritual songs, paraliturgical songs, sometimes songs for weddings – in general, songs for an event or a celebration. They're strophic, four lines of melody, and it repeats. There are lots of coplas for Purim, for bar mitzvahs, for brit milahs (circumcision), for the party for the bride after she has gone to the mikvah (ritual bath). And there are a lot of songs that have to do with purity or fertility. There's such a focus on marriage, lineage, family lines, and continuity of the Jewish traditions and identity. The blessing for a newlywed woman is always about continuity of the tradition and family, not about love. I think in general the coplas are older than the balladas, but newer than the romances.”

“Vanessa, I feel like we've just scratched the surface. This material is so fascinating, and I'm so proud of you for what you're doing to preserve and promote these traditions. When are you going to be in the United States?”

“I'll be visiting from April 15 until the end of May.”

“Would you like to do a combined musical performance and reading? Obviously, your material and my material are closely related. That could be a wonderful event.”

“I would love to do that.”