Tracing the Origins of Sephardic Folk Songs

Jun 10, 2013

Joseph_Smeall-VillaroelBy Joseph Smeall-Villarroel, tenor

This concert (Omens, Dreams & Curses) set features a trio of Sephardic Jewish folk songs. As a chorister who claims both Jewish and Latin-American ancestry, I think it worthwhile to give some background on the intersection of Jewish culture with Spanish / Latin-American culture, which is what brings SFCA the songs entitled “Yo M’enamorí,” “Durme, Durme,” and “Cuando el Rey Nimrod.” The Sephardim are Jews whose ancestry and religious customs have historical ties to Spain. They are the second largest subgroup worldwide, of people who identify as ethnically Jewish, second only to the Ashkenazi. The Sephardim are believed to have dwelt in Spain for centuries and indeed “Sephardic” itself derives from one of the Hebrew words for the Iberian peninsula – “Sepharad.” Ladino – known also as Judaeo-Spanish in countries outside Israel and the Americas – is a Spanish variant unique to the Sephardic Jewish diaspora. While they were still in Spain, individual Sephardic communities simply spoke the Castilian dialects local to whatever geographic region of Spain they happened to be living in. Ladino became a Spanish form unique to the dispersed worldwide community of Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15 century (You know, the same people who brought you these newfangled constructions of race and racism that we know and adore today, via Christopher Columbus and the transAtlantic slave trade of Africans and indigenous American peoples). It is important to realize that Ladino only crystallized into its own separate form of Spanish because of the shared experience among all Sephardic Jews from the different Iberian provinces, of being expelled from their ancestral homeland. For this reason, the Ladino we know today retains many vestigial aspects of we now call Old Spanish.

Ladino has been spoken within Sephardic communities over the centuries since the Spanish Inquisition. Its very existence is a linguistic and cultural demarcator of their status as religious exiles. Due the Sephardim’s dispersal to many lands across Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, Ladino has acquired local vocabulary influences from Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and other languages besides Spanish and Hebrew from which it was originally derived. Sephardic identity is distinctive within the creole cultures of the Spanish-speaking Americas due to the fact that Sephardic Jews have navigated the legacy of antisemitism by integrating and assimilating in various degrees to the dominant Roman Catholic-based culture of Latin America. Nonetheless, in various criollo communities such as that of my maternal grandmother in Bolivia, one can still detect residual aspects of subtly retained Jewish cultural practices. One evocative example of this hidden Jewish influence is that in my grandmother’s family (who are all practicing Roman Catholics) it is customary to cover all the mirrors of the household with veils whenever there is a death in the family.

Understanding the Sephardim as a distinct ethnoreligious group is a very important component of more fully understanding the richness of Jewish identity, Spanish identity, and American identity. (I mean “American” in its most inclusive and broad meta-U.S.A. sense when I use it here.) Due to the Sephardim’s ancient ties to Spain as their ancestral homeland, any person you meet who identifies as ethnically Spanish-from-Spain is likely to have at least a little of Jewishness in their ancestral heritage. This is regardless of how vehemently they may repudiate the insinuation of being in any way connected to Judaism. Indeed, sometimes the very fact of vehement repudiation is a telltale signal of someone’s anxiety about being “found out” as ancestrally Jewish. So, this is my way of saying that it is super awesome that SFCA is including in its concert repertoire the folk music of an ethnic Jewish subgroup that has traditionally been marginalized, erased, ignored and forcibly assimilated. Whenever we sing “Yo M’enamorí,” “Cuando el Rey Nimrod,” or “Durme, Durme,” we are honoring both the experience of Sephardic communities throughout the world, as well as the hidden Jewish cultural influence within Spanish-speaking and Latin American communities. Therefore you should feel free to get a warm fuzzy “I’m Proud to Be a Citizen of the Americas” tingle when you hear SFCA singing these matchless talismans of Sephardic Jewish culture. I sure do.