Vanessa Paloma, a Jewish American Singer in Casablanca, Morocco

"Vanessa Paloma, a Jewish American Singer  in Casablanca, Morocco"

On Thursday, March 5, 2006, I had the rare privilege of speaking about life and music with Vanessa Paloma. Ms. Paloma sings and plays medieval instruments (primarily the medieval harp), specializing in the songs of Spanish Jewry. She has performed on television and radio in the United States (Hallmark Channel, NPR, PRI), Morocco, Israel, and Colombia, where she was born. She has written a book, Mystic Siren:Woman’s Voice in the Balance of Creation and has contributed pieces to OLAM magazine and Pray Tell, the Hadassah Anthology of Women’s Prayer. In addition, Vanessa hosts a web site, Here she sings Avram Avinu:

Our conversation rapidly became so fascinating that I decided to make this a two-part blog entry. In the first part, Vanessa and I will discuss her life as an observant Jewish female musician living in Morocco. In the second part, we will talk more about the music and texts she interprets.

I spoke with Vanessa from my home in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Vanessa was in Casablanca, Morocco. I began by asking why she has chosen to live in Morocco.

“I first came to Tangiers as a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar,” she explained, “to research traditional Sephardic songs and their relationship to piyyutim – Jewish liturgical poetry – and women's spiritual expression.”

“The Jewish community in Morocco, as in the rest of the Arab world, is very small today. Have these traditions survived there?”

“Those who have remained have done so for one of three reasons. Either they were wealthy and powerful, and had a great deal to lose if they left Morocco; or they were too old and rooted here; or, again, they were unable to travel, either because they were sick or had to take care of someone. I find that the younger the women, the less they know of the traditional songs. The songs are a shadow of an imprint left by their ancestors. They like the traditions, they sing the songs during the Jewish holiday of Purim and on other occasions… but that’s about it. On the one hand, c’est dommage – it’s a pity – but on the other, when women want to move beyond certain cultural constraints handed down with the traditions, they have often feel a need to take this distance. To me, it seems that sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.”

“What is it like for a Jewish American woman to be living in Morocco?”

“It’s fascinating! Suddenly I was plunged into the middle of the life I had been studying for years. I decided to live in the medina, the oldest part of the city, so the history could seep into me. Or back into me – I have ancestors who moved from Tetouan to Colombia 150 years ago.”

“Are the musicians you work with primarily Muslim, Jewish, or Christian?”

“They are all Muslim, except for a violinist from Fez, who’s Jewish.”

“Does the difference in religious belief affect your ability to work together, or to get along?”

“No. We’re just musicians gathering to make music. Music is a universal language. The mandolinist I work with is blind and speaks only Arabic. I speak in French with the other musicians – I don’t speak Arabic – so the only way he and I can communicate is through the music itself. It’s deeper than the level of language, and even deeper than the level of visual gesture, since he can’t see. At first, it was a challenge. Then we learned to make it work.”

“What about the texts? Some of these songs deal with religious themes, no?”

“Yes, of course. But I’m the one doing the singing. Besides, most of them don’t understand the words, which are in a form of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) known as haketia. It’s Judeo-Spanish with some Arabic verbs mixed in – conjugated as if they were Spanish verbs – and written in Hebrew characters. Most of the ‘regular’ words are Spanish. The Arabic verbs are used primarily to convey strong emotions.”

“So we’re talking about songs by Spanish-speaking Jews who emigrated to Morocco following the exile from Spain in 1492?”

“Yes. But I’d like to make the point that the exile was not a firmly closed door. Cultural exchange between Spain and Jewish Morocco took place both before 1492 and after. In fact, some Jews went back to Spain as marranos (that is, posing as Catholics) and returned to Morocco as Jews. In Tetouan, there’s a cemetery called the cementerio de castilla, where some of the tombs have no idenitification – only flowers engraved in the stone – because some Jews who came from Spain still had outwardly Catholic family back home. They didn’t want to place their family members in Spain in danger with the Inquisition by putting names on their tombs. You can see some of these tombs on my blog, on one of the very early posts.”

“Have some Jews in Morocco felt a need to disguise their identity, as many did in Spain?”

“This is something that people don’t talk about too much. In fact, only outsiders like me even delve into this area. But yes, there are people who are aware of having Jewish ancestors. For one reason or another, at some point in history, they felt a need or desire to convert to Islam. So you have names like Mohammed Cohen, or Choukroun, or Jelloun, which are Jewish names here. And they’ve handed down Jewish ritual objects within their families. They attach great importance to these objects, even though they’re not quite sure what they’re for.”

“That sounds like the stories we hear about descendents of crypto-Jews in New Mexico and elsewhere.”

“It is, in some ways. But it hasn’t been investigated nearly as much.”

“Are the people of Morocco receptive to your music? Are they interested? Do they provide you with opportunities to perform?”

“I would say, they’re very interested. As far as opportunities, well, for example, I’m going to be performing Judeo-Spanish songs on Moroccan television this weekend. You have to understand, historically, Jews were the musicians for secular purposes. The Islamic musical tradition, the tradition of Sufi music, was used for sacred purposes. But if you had a party, you had Jewish musicians. So it’s very much, historically, part of the culture.”

to be continued