September 18, 2019

Sephardic and Ladino Music

Given that the first Jews to arrive in what became the United States were Sephardim on the run from the Inquisition’s Brazilian representatives, it is ironic that the music of the Sephardic Jews gets so little attention here.

Not everyone is a party to that neglect. Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah Music, offering a mind-boggling array of Jewish record-ings and music, has made it his business to bring a wide range of Sephardic and Ladino music to American listeners.

The records reviewed below were selected by Rutberg from his considerable stock and represent a small sampling of his favorites. Several of these records are distributed in the U.S. exclusively by Hatikvah. All of them are available from Rutberg, who can be reached by phone at (323) 655-7083 or by e-mail at You can also order them at Hatikvah’s Web site:

As for the music itself, two elements unite most of these records – the emotional power of minor scales and the expressiveness of the human voice.

Isaac Azose: “The Liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth” (privately produced).Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is a Rhodesli synagogue. The music of the Greek Jews – as you will learn from several of the CDs – is as different from that of other Sephardi musical traditions as the Gerer Chassidic tunes are from those of the Modzitzer, and the Rhodes tradition is equally distinct from that of, say Salonika. Judging from this 2-CD set, these compositions are wonderful vehicles for cantorial virtuosity but not to the exclusion of congregational singing, unlike the work of the great “Golden Age” cantors. Cantor Azose smiles out from the cover of this CD, a grandfatherly Ed Begley lookalike, but he has a powerful, flexible voice that belies his 68 years and recent retirement. The set has a pleasantly homemade quality, with the cantor introducing each selection with a brief explanation, then launching into an a cappella rendition of the setting. A rich musical tapestry in an austere setting. Rating: 4 1 1/2 stars.

Etty Ben-Zaken: “The Bride Unfastens Her Braids, the Groom Faints: Ladino Love Songs” (New Albion).Torrid stuff, this. Ben-Zaken has one of those husky, smoky altos like the great flamenco cantaoras, and she wields it with real power. The instrumental sound, from the Ensemble Yatan Atan, is highly reminiscent of Renaissance dance music, like many bands in this genre. A smoldering recording that manages to bring up unfamiliar material and avoids the air of sameness that too often creeps into recordings in this genre by, shall we say, visitors. Rating: 5 stars.

Fortuna: “Cantigas” (Sonopress); “Mazal” (MCD).Two CDs by a Ladino diva. Fortuna, who records in Brazil, reminds me of Judy Collins. She has a pretty but inflexible voice and sings with a complete lack of emotion and a minimum of expressivity. Both these albums are full of folky, new-agey settings that frame her voice with a lot of echo. If you care for that sort of thing, these will be to your taste and you can add a couple of stars. Rating: 2 stars.

Jana Lewitova and Rudolf Merinsky: “Sephardic Songs” (Classics Arta).No accident that this set is on a Czech classical label. A studiously authentic recording like this serves as another reminder of how much this particular tradition sounds like Renaissance dance music to my untrained ears. Lewitova is a graceful, elegant singer (although with a little Slavonic wobble), and she gets the maximum emotional impact out of some very lively (albeit somewhat more familiar) material. Expert accompaniment. Rating: 4 1¼2 stars.

Salamone Rossi: “The Songs of Solomon” (Panton). This recording is sort of the odd man out; Rossi belongs to the written classical tradition rather than the folk tradition of most of the music here. That said, he is undoubtedly the most famous Jewish classical composer working prior to the 19th century. An Italian Jew, he was a student and protégé of Claudio Monteverdi. His best known works are choral, and this splendid recording by the Kahn Chamber Soloists and Symposium Musicum under the direction of Pavel Kahn, released in the Czech Republic in the mid-’90s, highlights his finest accomplishment, a 33-song cycle of liturgical music. Rossi’s settings have the elegance of simplicity, with haunting harmonics, and the Kahn singers perform them with a restraint that allows them to speak for themselves. Rating: 5 stars.

David Saltiel: “Jewish Spanish Songs of Thessaloniki” (Oriente).Authenticity is not a guarantor of musical value, but this recording has plenty of both. Saltiel is not a professional singer, although he is backed here by professional musicians. But he is an inheritor of a unique musical tradition of Judeo-Spanish folk songs passed down through generations. His style is full of ornate melismatic phrases and a driving pulse. The result is Ladino folk music of raw power – moving in both senses of the word. Rating: 4 1¼2 stars.

“Songs for the Bride and Groom” (Oriental).Yet another very different musical tradition. This is an extraordinary recording, and I don’t know a darned thing about it. Apparently it’s some kind of a field recording of Yemenite wedding music, half women’s songs for the bride, half men’s songs for the groom. But there is no information on the CD jacket other than song titles (in Hebrew). But the music is riveting, moving effortlessly between pulsing, richly harmonized choral pieces and driving percussion-backed numbers that recall the great Nubian pop singer Ali Hassan Kuban. My only misgiving about the record is that it is under a half-hour long, which costs it a half-star. Rating: 4 1/2 stars.

Savina Yannatou: “Spring in Salonika” (Lyra).Yannatou is what Fortuna is trying to be, a powerful singer who is alternately ethereal and plaintive, with an instrument that is expressive far beyond an apparently limited range. The musicians backing her are sensitive accompanists and gifted improvisers, particularly violinist Kyriakos Gouvéntas and reed player Yannis Kaimakis. Poised somewhere between folk and classical, this is a gem, a prime example of how to keep a tradition alive without performing musical taxidermy. Rating: 5 stars.

New York-based writer George Robinson is the author of “Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals” (Pocket Books, $27.95).