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Contemporary Practice of the Traditional Jewish-Spanish (Ladino) Music Repertoire in Turkey: The Revival Just Begun
by Hadass Pal-Yarden

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[Editor's Note: I received a review copy of Ms. Pal-Yarden's disc and was so moved by both the music and the accompanying book that I asked if she'd be kind enough to contribute to Jump Arts Journal and reprint it here in our new incarnation, Acoustic Levitation. Happily, she obliged, and our coverage of the disc Yahudice will appear here separately. I discovered the Kalan Müzik label on a recent visit to Istanbul and purchased over forty of their discs of ethnic historical and contemporary recordings, nearly all packaged within large CD-sized multilingual books. They are the Turkish equivalent to the US labels Smithsonian/Folkways and Rounder but with even better packaging yet at a lower price. They currently have no US distribution. We apologize for being presently unable to reproduce some of the standard Turkish letters with their diacritical marks, such as the s with a cedilla and the g with circumflex. We have adapted them to their closest English counterparts, choosing for similarity of visual appearance rather than for equivalent sound.]

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In the last few years Istanbul has become a scene for the unique musical activities of Ladino (Judeo- Spanish) music. Sephardic tradition has become more accessible to the Turkish audience, and a door has opened for musicians of other faiths to collaborate with Jewish musicians. A heterogeneous audience attends Sephardic music events and purchases its products. This article's aims are to give an introduction to Ladino music in its commercial aspects in Istanbul and open some more paths for thorough research.

Many questions arise from the Ladino music scene in Istanbul: Can we identify special musical characteristics that will distinguish all Sephardic groups founded in Istanbul? What are the tools used to draw Sephardic music out from the Jewish community private circles toward the Turkish non- Jewish audience, and what is lost or gained from this spreading and sharing?

Which came first: Did the curiosity of Turkish people toward Jewish secular and religious ceremonies, embodied in Sephardic music, make Turkish musicians eager to collaborate with Sephardic musicians and thus bring the Ladino songs forward musically and publicly? Or did the collaboration between Turkish and Sephardic musicians spring from a deeper concern by the Turkish audience for Sephardic music, and thus spur a need for a wider and a more prominent presence of this music in Turkey? Does the collaboration between Sephardic and Turkish musicians determine the quality and success of Ladino songs in the music industry in Turkey? Some of the questions are not so easy to answer, and for some, an answer will need to be given in the frame of deep and long academic research.

There are about 25, 000 Jewish people in Istanbul nowadays. Most of them are the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Istanbul has one of the largest Sephardic populations in the world. Just to give a perspective, in all Israel there are only approximately 100,000 Sephardic people. The Sephardic community in Istanbul functions as a unit and has many institutional frames that maintain connections between its members. The important links include the weekly Jewish newspaper Salom Gazetesi, with many subscribers in Istanbul; the Hahambasí (the chief rabbinate of the Jewish community of Turkey), which organizes and joins all the activities of the community, and many other social frames which enable the people to have a closely-knit community life.

After the Jewish people were expelled from Spain and Portugal, they spread mainly to the east and the west of the Mediterranean region. There were also communities, most of them of Portuguese origin, who came to Europe, mainly to London, Amsterdam, and Vienna. In the eastern Mediterranean, they established their communities under the protective wings of the Ottoman Empire, later divided into Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. In the west, they settled in northern Morocco.

Their communities prospered culturally and economically, thanks to Ottoman law granting autonomy to minorities, who could continue their lives as independent ethnic units. This enabled the Jewish community to continue to preserve its religion, traditions, language, and all the rituals connected to their cultural heritage.

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The Ladino language, in use among the Sephardic Jewish people since the days of the expulsion, is actually a melting language. Its syntax is derived from medieval Spanish, but its vocabulary is a mixture of Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, and Turkish. We can also find Serbian and Bulgarian vocabulary. The percentage of foreign vocabulary depends on the local linguistic influences. For example, we will find more Turkish words in Istanbul's Ladino, and more Arabic words in the Ladino of Jerusalem.

Under the European influence at the beginning of the 20th century, the Ladino language became secondary in status. Even nowadays I hear people call it jargon or the balıkcı dil (Turkish: the language of fisherman). This condescension was also hastened in Turkey by the trend of nationality. In the early 1930s, the saying 'Vatanda?, Türkïe konu?' ('Citizen, speak Turkish') and its sanctions encouraged Jewish people as well as other minorities to neglect their ethnic language and move to Turkish. Children raised by their grandmothers could still hear Ladino, but they were ashamed to speak from fear that they would have a Jewish accent and their Turkish would show their linguistic inferiority. The same trend appeared in Israel in the '50s and further on: 'Yehudi, daber Ivrit' (Hebrew: 'Jew, speak Hebrew.') Today Ladino is barely functioning as a daily language. but still I can hear it in the streets of Kurtulus and Sisli in Istanbul. In some neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bat Yam in Israel it is also still in use.

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Ladino music changed its role in the Jewish community from the beginning of the 20th century. Little by little it lost its function inside the community in the traditional rituals of the life cycle and the year cycle, and moved into other frames such as commercial recordings and performances. One needs to study Turkish music in order to have a deeper knowledge about the Ladino song repertoire from the ex-Ottoman Empire's main centers of Jewish Sephardic diasporas: Istanbul, Izmir, and Saloniki. Additionally, Istanbul's own musical life has a great effect on Ladino music, since one of the Sephardic communities that still exists and keeps its Ladino language and songs is here in Istanbul.

The Sephardic Turkish community's approach was to keep Ladino music behind the general Ladino cultural arena, although we can in recent years see an impressive progress toward appreciating Ladino language and music. I believe we owe that to the fact that it gains more and more publicity and fame among the non-Jewish Turkish listeners. The more honor it gains among the outsider audience, the more it is tolerated among the Sephardic people.

Nevertheless, the case of Janet and Jak Esim challenges this theory. Janet and Jak Esim gained world recognition by being the most active Turkish Sephardic ensemble abroad. They were given the German Critics Award in 1992, participated in three CD compilations (A Jewish Odyssey, La Yave, and Gallus Music) and released an album with a German company. They have also gained the recognition of the Turkish audience; their music is well-known and loved.

Apparently, it should have been enough to award them with the recognition of their own people, but still they gain less publicity than local Sephardic groups such as Erensya Sepharadi and Los Pasaros. Usually in the local festivities and celebrations Janet and Jak Esim are not chosen to represent the community. Musically, Janet and Jak have been collaborating with well-known Turkish musicians for many years: Erkan Ogur, Okay Temiz, Herman Heder, and others. Although choosing harmonized musical arrangements in their last CD, Mira, they still manage with their vocal characteristics to maintain a style close to the way it was sung by the Sephardic informants. In most of their former CDs, the micro-tonality bears evidence of Turkish musical influences.

Los Pasaros is a good example of a group which started as an inner community, amateur Ladino group, and by collaborating with professional Turkish musicians had improved dramatically its abilities, producing a good album with high professional standards.

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Sephardic Turkish culture over the last 70 years discouraged being an artist; young adults are pushed towards business, medicine, law, etc. A very low percentage of musicians exists even today in the community, and if someone deals with music he is usually an amateur who works in a 'serious' job and only in his spare time does music. The groups which insisted on making music were limited in their musical skills. If you add to this the tendency to collaborate only amongst themselves, no wonder you cannot come up with very sophisticated, professional and fine musical products (CDs, cassettes, plays, musicals, concerts, and so on).

Los Pasaros started as this kind of group and mostly was content to give concerts inside of the community. They indeed were invited to give concerts abroad, but most of their concerts were to the Sephardic communities around the world. In the last two years they started to search for new paths and got to work on their new CD Zemirot with the Turkish musician who became the arranger of the CD, Mustafa Keser. They used a whole ensemble of Turkish musicians and started to insist on performing together with them as well. That they still have a mixed attitude to their music is demonstrated in the CD booklet; although the jacket is elegant and contains extensive notes, none of the Turkish musicians' names appear.

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Sefarad, a group of three young Jewish Sephardic musicians (Sami Levy, Jem Stamati, and Jacky Bensuse) established less than a year ago, released their first CD at the beginning of this year. Together with the actress named Hande Altayli and a very powerful CD company, DMC, they appeared with a well-planned product, with Turkish youngsters as their target market. Sefarad aims towards pop star status, but with an interesting ideology connected to their music: to make Ladino music a new popular music in Turkey, less for old Sephardic people and more for youngsters.

Sefarad's repertoire consists of two groups: the original, most popular Ladino songs they know from their Sephardic heritage, and Turkish mainly love songs based on Ladino melodies. Every song on their CD has two performances: one in Ladino with its origin text and one in Turkish with a newly written lyric not necessarily connected to its origin. For example, the most famous Ladino song from the Kopla genre, derived from a biblical story about the miraculous birth of Avraham (Avram Avinu, Padre Kerido, Luz de Yisrael), became a song praising the Turkish summer vacation spot Bodrum. Another song that originally was a longing song for Jerusalem became in Turkish a song about a person's confession to his mother. Sefarad gained huge exposure in the Turkish media and quickly rose to the top of the CD charts in February 2004.

Musically speaking, Sefarad mixes Bregovich's orchestration with trumpets and wind instruments, typical Turkish pop music passages, and the unique quality of Turkish vocal style of the soloist Sami Levi. Besides the trio, all the rest of the musicians in the group are non-Jewish Turks. The other two musicians beside the soloist did not play on the CD but were replaced by professionals. This CD is a very brave project that proved itself both popular and profitable. They have had the largest amount of publicity ever given in Turkey to Sephardic music and made the biggest step toward making this music digestible and easy on the Turkish ear.

Are they accepted by the community? The frequency of their appearance in the Jewish newspaper as compared to the Turkish media is negligible. Not only that, they are criticized for not bringing a more honored and serious music, but choosing instead light material and sometimes too-spicy Ladino lyrics (which actually does, however, commonly exist in Ladino songs). The fact that the songs were also sung in Turkish, and were not translations but totally new lyrics, was also problematic for the ears of people from the Sephardic community.

The quiet but powerful revolution arrives from an unexpected place: the young fans in the Jewish community who follow Sefarad from concert to concert are singing their songs in both languages- Ladino and Turkish. They feel that this is the way their culture should be shown: young, dance-like, spicy, and, very importantly – Turkish. They want to feel a partt of the Turkish scene and at the same time they do not give up their identity as Jewish and Sephardic. They play the role of fans as if to say, 'Don't play the Ladino music as if it belongs to our father's generation, play it so we can feel part of it. Don't push us away from our musical heritage. We want to belong to it but that does not mean we are not part of the Turkish identity.' Attending Sefarad's concerts, there is a mixture of people, but most of them are aged from 16 to 35. They have many fans that are neither Jewish nor familiar with Ladino. I think they are doing a huge service to Ladino music, although changing songs in order to adjust them to the outsider audience remains problematic for some listeners.

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Maftirim is a hymn singing tradition unique to the Turkish Jewish community, still practiced in Istanbul's Sisli Synagogue. Most of the religious Jewish rituals have strong relations to Ottoman court music. Many of the hymns sung in synagogues are precise replications of Ottoman vocal and instrumental genres such as pesrev, sarki, and beste, but with liturgical text written by different poets from the 16th century and onwards. Derived from that is the strong relation of religious music with the Ottoman makam system. The Maftirim repertoire is derived from Mevlevi dervish music, which is also divided into different makams. It is sung by men every Saturday during several months on the Jewish calendar year after the prayer ritual of this Sabbath. Every week has a different makam, and the cantor leads the Maftirim singing.

The first composer known in that genre, in the 16th century, was Rabbi Shlomo Ben Mazaltov. Other important composers and poets include Al Harizi, Shlomo Ben Maymon, Israel Nadjara (with his essential book Shirey Yisrael beErets Hakedem), Eliya Gayus, and Yosef Ganso. This tradition, which developed in Edirne, appeared later in Istanbul, Bursa, and Izmir. Nowadays there are several amateur Maftirim groups that participate in different events and occasions. Istanbul's Culture Department traditionally hosts concerts called Birlikte Yasamak (Turkish: To live together) devoted to minorities in Turkey, where choirs of Turkish, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian origin introduce their traditions.

The choirs also collaborate on popular Turkish classical songs. Among the Maftirim groups are the group of Hazzan Aaron Kohen Yasak, the group of David Sevi, and the group of Yaakov Taragano. All of them are Jewish and are familiar with this music from their participating in the ceremonies in the synagogues. The Maftirim group of Yaakov Taragano also collaborated with Turkish musicians, all graduated from the conservatoire of Istanbul Technical University, known for its traditional Turkish music education. The Maftirim group of Aharon Hakohen collaborated with Turkish players and arrangers, and performed under the roof of Kalan Müzik, the CD company who supported the project and gave unlimited financial means to enable it to be as professional as can be. Their album is the only album in print of Maftirim repertoire nowadays. Despite its importance, it was criticized by the Sephardic Turkish community for not being loyal to their synagogue heritage (since it is forbidden to sing those hymns with accompaniment in the synagogue, and traditionally it was sung only vocally).

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The Yahudice project is another aspect of Ladino music in Istanbul. It was made in 2003 after a long process of fieldwork and archival research. I proposed it to Kalan Müzik as a project that will emphasize the fact that Ladino music is related to Turkish, Greek, and Arabic music, and had a fertile dialogue with Ottoman culture, more so than with that of medieval Spain. Yahudice had few reasons to be accepted in the community: the fact that I came from another country, Israel, made it easier because I did not have to behave according to the Turkish Sephardic community codes. Being Jewish and of eastern origin made a strong link that led to my acceptance and being embraced, connecting me to this community. The fact that I came with music education from Israel made them curious about how would I dress their Ladino songs. Also, the longing many of them have for Israeli music and Hebrew language made me a kind of a transfer of the Israeli spirit, music, and culture, and most of them still see me as "the stranger from Israel." It gave me a relative freedom that under no circumstances could have been given to an insider.

Using a typical Turkish çalgilar (group of players, musicians), most of whom were known to the average Turkish classical listener, gave it the "stampa" (signature) of good music. Creating a link to the Turkish audience by telling the stories of the songs and discussing the Jewish Sephardic heritage in their own language, though with difficulty and making it clear that I was new here, made many people want to accept me as their kind. Many people ask me to tell more stories because it gives the Jewish audience a feeling of pride in their heritage, and of nostalgia. In addition, to the Turkish audience it opens a window to understanding this closed community by offering more knowledge about it. I think all those conditions made this project unique to Istanbul, and maybe no other combination of factors would make it happen in any other place in the world.

Yahudice contributed to Ladino music in Turkey by demonstrating a full collaboration among Turkish and Greek musicians and by emphasizing the notion that these melodies were born because of interaction between communities and not through cultural isolation. The music I chose demonstrates how close we are culturally and musically, and the wandering of melodies from Armenians to Greeks to Turks to Jews (not necessarily in that order) only proves the common musical characteristics.

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Here we can close a circle: Jewish musicians from the days of the invention of 78 r.p.m. recordings in the former Ottoman Empire, including Roza Eskenazi, Haim Efendi, Isaac Agazi, Nadjara, Viktoria Hazan, just like the present-day performers, were Sephardic, sang in more than two languages, and played with musicians who were not Jewish. That was the natural way of life in the old days of Istanbul and this mixing nourished the music and made it flourish. The 'Dark Ages' of Sephardic music in Turkey started with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Ideas of nationalism left the newborn republic's minorities with a feeling of uncertainty about their place and role in the republic. This uncertainty affected the cultural life and was expressed by suppressing the Sephardic identity, increasing the Turkish identity, and keeping Sephardic traditions within the close circles of the families and community life. For approximately sixty years this situation has not changed very much.

We see a careful reawakening, especially in the last five years, of Sephardic music. There is a growing use of the notion of creating music together as in the old days at Tünel (a district in Istanbul that used to have different ethnic groups living together in a good neighborhood). This new vibrant activity is only a spark which needs to be nurtured in order to be comparable to the long and wide collaboration in the 'Tünel zamanlarï' (the times of Tünel, the end of Ottoman rule and beginning of the republic). In order to revive Ladino music, let us support and be tolerant of new musical attempts, for in this way traditional Jewish-Spanish music will not disappear from the pages of history.

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Janet & Jack Esim:
Janet & Jak Esim. Judeo- Espanyol Ezgiler. Istanbul: Global, 1989. CD 001.
----. Antik Bir Hüzün. Istanbul: Global, 1992. CD 002.
----. Sefardim 1. Istanbul: 1992.
----. Birkaç Sonsuzluk Ani. Istanbul: Trikont, 1994.
----. Mira. Istanbul: Global, 2003. CD 004.

Los Pasaros Sefaradis:Â
Los Pasharos Sefaradis Vol. I (cassette). Istanbul: LPS, 1987.
----. Vol. II (cassette). Istanbul: LPS, 1987.
----. Vol III (cassette). Istanbul: LPS, 1987.
----. La Romansa de Rika Kuriel (cassette). Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik, 1988.
----. Kantikas Para Syempre. Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik, 1995.
----. Zemirot: Turkish-Sephardic Synagogue Hymns. Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik, 2002.
----. Kantikas Para Syempre (2nd edition), Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik, 2003.

Maftirim. Judeo-Sufi Connection. Istanbul: Kalan Müzik, 2001. CD 234.

Sefarad. Sefarad. Istanbul: DMC, 2004. CD 20099.

Hadass Pal Yarden. Yahudice. Istanbul: Kalan Müzik, 2003. CD 272.

For further information about the Maftirim phenomenon, see the excellent and authentic Maftirim album and its 63 page booklet containing detailed information in English and Turkish: Maftirim: Judeo-Sufi Connection. Istanbul: Kalan Müzik. 2001. CD 234.

Istanbul Technical University, Turkey
Copyright (c) 2004-08, Hadass Pal-Yarden


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