Home WorldEurope Preserving the music of the Sephardic Jews of Morocco

Preserving the music of the Sephardic Jews of Morocco

by YAR

TANGIER, Morocco — They sang to put their babies to sleep, or in the kitchen baking Purim cakes. They sang in the courtyards at night when the men were in the synagogue for evening prayer, songs of love, loss, religion, and war.

Today, most of those women, members of Morocco’s now dwindling Jewish population, are gone. But they have left behind a rich historical treasure of northern Sephardic Judeo-Moroccan culture, passed down from generation to generation through oral history, which scholars of Judaism strive to preserve before it disappears.

These snippets of history tell powerful stories of times past, before the Moroccan Jewish population that once exceeded 250,000 dwindled to the few hundred that remain now, after several waves of emigration.

Women were for centuries confined to the Jewish quarters, captivated by a world far removed from their own, singing ballads that over time became tonal elements of their culture. They clung to music to preserve their identities and traditions.

The songs, known as “romances,” are a heritage from the Reconquest, when Christians in medieval Spain fought a centuries-long battle against Muslim occupation. As the Reconquest drew to a close in 1492, Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled. Many of them ended up in Morocco, bringing their Spanish heritage with them.

The songs reflect this history, with many mocking the Spanish rulers and priests who expelled them. Although the Jews of northern Morocco spoke a hybrid language of Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic, the songs are in Spanish.

But they are not just political statements. They are ballads and lullabies with metaphorical lyrics that not only speak to history, but are deeply intertwined with personal memories and cultural traditions.

Oro Anahory-Librowicz, a Moroccan-born Judeo-Spanish music expert who donated 400 recordings to Israel’s National Library, says the songs were not originally Sephardic, but were learned from the Spanish and retained in the culture even as they disappeared in Israel. the continent. Spain.

“It’s a way of preserving something,” he said in a Zoom interview from Montreal, where he moved in 1973. “Natural transmission is not possible in a community that is scattered all over the world. It has become a hallmark. The women recognized themselves in this Hispanic heritage and it allowed them to preserve a dimension of their Judeo-Hispanic identity”.

One Friday in February, in the hours before sunset and Shabbat, three friends gathered as they have on many occasions in the apartment of a pillar of the community, Sonia Cohen Toledano, which overlooks the Bay of Tangier, in the extreme north of the country. , just a few miles across the sea from Spain.

In animated conversations, they frequently interrupted each other, often finishing each other’s sentences. Going through a pile of black and white photographs, yellowed by time, they recalled happy moments and spoke about the decline of their community and the urgent need to make the past part of the present and also of the future.

The three women are among fewer than 30 Moroccan Jews now living in Tangier.

And in many of their gatherings they end up singing ballads.

That day, the music took to the air as they clapped and held hands, smiling as they sang. Words in Spanish, sometimes joyful and other times deeply romantic, filled the spacious living room as the women sat on a sofa, sipping Moroccan mint tea, in a moment that felt like traveling centuries back.

“We heard them at weddings all the time,” said Julia Bengio, 83. “My mother sang in front of me, but I never thought to say to her: ‘Come here, let me write the lyrics.'” But she found cassette recordings of her mother singing and has transcribed the lyrics so she doesn’t get lost.

“They never explained to us what it was, but later in life we ​​investigated it and I want to preserve them,” he added. “Simply not to forget.”

The women sometimes read handwritten notes or referred to YouTube videos of the music to jog their memories.

One song mocks a priest who impregnates 120 women. In the song, all the women give birth to girls, except for the cook (of a lower social class), who has a boy. She just so happened to explicitly ask the priest to get her pregnant, and the story connects with some interpretations of the Talmud that say that when women have sexual pleasure, they conceive children.

They all give birth to girls, the male maid.
One hundred and twenty cradles, all around,
Except for the cook who hung up on the terrace.

(“They all give birth to girls, and the maid a boy. A hundred and twenty cradles, all around, except the cook’s son who hung on the terrace”).

The central message: if their husbands want children, they must give pleasure before receiving pleasure.

Ms. Cohen Toledano, dedicated to maintaining connections with the past, is a treasure trove of everything related to the Judeo-Spanish culture of northern Morocco.

“Before we had aunts, cousins, family here,” said Mrs. Cohen Toledano, 85, who is the only one of her family’s 16 children who stayed in Morocco. “Little by little, everyone left. We are so few that we are close. We see each other all the time. It’s hard, but we get used to it.”

Her house is a mini-museum of Hispano-Jewish culture, a mix and match of embroidery, artwork, photography, and a collection of antique dresses, some over 150 years old, almost everything she could get from the Jews who left or that he was able to dig. at flea markets. “Every time someone died, they left me something,” she said.

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, an American Judeo-Spanish music scholar at the University of Cambridge, has spent the last 15 years collecting and archiving the voices of older Jews in Morocco. To date she has inventoried more than 2,000 entries (mostly recordings and some photos and videos); a pilot of the file is available online. Dr. Paloma Elbaz has family roots going back five generations in Morocco.

As a young girl living in Puerto Rico, she learned her first romance while singing in a children’s choir. That sparked her interest in Jewish-Moroccan history, and although she no longer lives in Morocco, she still visits regularly and records as much as she can.

“If we think we don’t have a written text for women, we’re wrong,” she said. “Some archives were sitting in Spain and no one was paying attention to them.”

“It’s about learning to read them,” he added. “They sent all kinds of messages. If they were sad about something, they would sing some of these songs to convey a message to their husbands.”

One day this winter, in Casablanca, he met Moroccan Jews at a kosher delicatessen, and then others backstage at a concert, and recorded them all. He also sought out the children of Alegría Busbib Bengio, a leading figure in the city’s Jewish community, who spent the last years of her life handwriting family genealogies and making dresses. She died a few months ago, at the age of 91, leaving her children with the task of preserving everything that she so carefully collected.

“It would be betraying her not to share her legacy,” her daughter, Valérie Bengio, told Dr. Paloma Elbaz in the apartment where her late mother lived from 1967 until her death. “Leaving things intact is letting them die.”

Ms. Cohen Toledano’s daughter, Yaelle Azegury, 51, now lives in Stamford, Conn., but her connection to Morocco remains strong. Music is the bridge that connects her with her childhood in Tangier. In an interview, she said that she used to sing lullabies to her children that she remembered from her mother, but that she doesn’t think her three American-born children carry on her legacy.

“It’s a beautiful heritage,” he said. The songs need to be heard. These ballads are often deeply moving and are part of the world heritage. I feel that I am the last chain of a story that ends with me.”

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