Jablonski, Marek (Michael)



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4. Sephardi.


(i) Introduction.

(ii) Iberian roots.

(iii) North Africa (Maghribi).

(iv) Ottoman Empire.

(v) Western Europe and the Americas.

(vi) Italy.

Jewish music, §III, 4: Liturgical and paraliturgical: Sephardi

(i) Introduction.


Sephardi Jews (from Heb. sepharad: ‘Spain’) are the descendants of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, most of whom were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the period 1492–7 or converted to Christianity (since the 14th century) and remained in the Peninsula as crypto-Jews. Those who left Spain after the expulsion settled in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and later in western Europe and the Americas. This geographical distribution led, from the musical point of view, to the consolidation of several liturgical sub-traditions: the ‘North African’ (also known as the ‘Maghribi’: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), the ‘Ottoman’ (Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Greece, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria), the ‘Italian’ (with traces found also in Libya) and the ‘Western’ (south-west France, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Hamburg, East Coast of the USA and the Caribbean).

All Sephardi communities follow the same liturgical order with the minor exception of liturgical hymns (piyyutim), which are added to the normative prayers on Holy Days and special occasions and vary between communities. The musical performance of the liturgy is entirely vocal (in unison or heterophonic texture) and characterized by the interaction between a cantor and an active, participating congregation. Responsorial singing is found in the ancient selihot service of the High Holy Days and in the singing of piyyutim. The whole congregation sings other sections.

Any learned individual may lead a service. However, one or more permanent hazzanim (cantors) serve in each synagogue. Cantors are ordinary members of the community (no ordination is needed) who possess developed singing skills and a knowledge of the liturgical music repertory. Their role is to lead the liturgy, especially on Sabbaths and Holy Days, and within a single service the leading role may pass from one cantor to another. Professional, paid cantors are rare in Sephardi communities, although among west European Sephardim the cantor has held a particularly prominent position, second only to that of the rabbi. In North Africa, a semi-professional singer (paytan) may also participate in festive services, for example when a wedding or bar-mitzvah is celebrated in the synagogue. He sings special hymns or musically elaborated sections of the liturgy.

Within a single daily or festive Sephardi service, several musical genres are performed, namely, psalmody, cantillation, recitative and strophic melodies. The psalmody is characterized by a repeated musical phrase of narrow range (usually a perfect 5th) and clear pulse (but without fixed metre) that is divided into two hemistiches, each ending on a clear cadence. The setting of the text is mostly syllabic. This genre can be heard in the congregational singing of psalms at the opening of the morning services (see above, §III, 2(i)). Cantillation, as in all Jewish communities, is the public reading of the Torah and other biblical texts on Sabbaths and Holy Days according to the Masoretic accents. Despite similarities in the musical realization of the accents in all Sephardi communities, regional styles exist in this genre also, with the greatest distinction lying between the ‘Eastern Sephardi ’ and the ‘North African’ cantillations (see above, §III, 2(ii)). Improvised recitatives in flowing rhythm are used to perform most liturgical texts. Recitatives range from enhanced, syllabic readings of narrow range to developed, melismatic performances of wide range whose pitch organization is framed by modes, especially Arabic maqāmāt or Turkish makamlar. Strophic melodies consist of two or more musical phrases repeated in a fixed order, with or without refrain, and usually with a fixed metre. These melodies serve for the singing of liturgical poems and, occasionally, of selected texts in prose. Strophic melodies may be traditional or adopted from the music of the surrounding culture.

As in all Jewish communities, the liturgical music of the Sephardi Jews is an open system. This concept implies the constant tension between community, tradition and individual innovation in the development of the repertory. Despite commonalities in the liturgical music and its performance in Sephardi congregations over wide geographical areas (the most outstanding example being the musical repertory for the High Holy Days), each synagogue functions as a musical microcosm. An important factor in the merging of continuity with change is the mobility of cantors, who spread and blend melodies from one location to another during their journeys around the Mediterranean.

Paraliturgical events are a crucial component of the Sephardi musical tradition. The singing of baqqashot (see below, §III, 1 and 2(iv)) is the most developed of these rituals and is found in the Ottoman, Moroccan and Syrian sub-traditions.



Jewish music, §III, 4: Liturgical and paraliturgical: Sephardi


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