Jewish World Review April 14, 2003 / 12 Nissan, 5763

SONGS OF EXODUS: Five New CDs of Sephardic Music

By Paul Wieder | Thousands of years ago, Jews left Egypt against the Egyptians' will. But in 1492, Jews left Spain, which they called Sepharad, at the demand of the Inquisitors. They scattered worldwide, taking their culture with them.

More than five centuries later, their descendants still carry that heritage in ritual, prayer, story, and song. There are several excellent new recordings that reveal Sephardic song in all its multi-faceted, world-spanning glory.

Our journey starts close to home. One member of the supergroup The Sons of Sepharad - each member has independent international recognition-is none other than Chicago's Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi. He does not entirely doff his cantorial cap here, however, as some of these songs are rooted in liturgy. He is joined by an award-winning Sephardic guitarist, Morocco's Gerard Edery, who balances Mizrahi's brassy tenor with a bronze baritone. Edery also lends the group his own ensemble's percussionist, the irrepressible Rex Benincasa. On tenor is a fellow Moroccan, cantor and oudist Aaron Bensoussan. Also featured is a special guest, oud virtuoso George Mgrdichian.

In their debut, also called "The Sons of Sepharad," they run through what might be termed "Sephardic Music's Greatest Hits": "Scalerica de Oro (Ladder of Gold)," "Los Bilbilicos (The Nightingales)," "Fel Shara," and, of course, "Avram Avinu (Abraham Our Father)." The band charges through these standards with verve and aplomb, sounding like an ensemble one might stumble across in the shuk- either yesterday or 300 years ago. The Sons clearly revel in their heritage, making their debut release a joyous introduction to Sephardic music for the first-time listener and an authentic pleasure for long-time aficionados.

Like Mizrahi, Savina Yannatou is of Greek origin. Her latest release, "Mediterranea," is a journey around the Mediterranean, from Spain to Israel, with stops in Provencal France, Italy and its islands, Cyprus, Albania, Lebanon, and her homeland. While only a few of the songs relate directly to Jewish experience, all are from regions Jews have inhabited, and it is fascinating to see Jewish song in this larger context.

But what makes this CD a must-listen is Yannatou's gossamer voice. Like that of Enya or Judy Collins, it is weightless to the point of being otherworldly. Sometimes presented a cappella, sometimes backed by ancient instruments, her voice is a timeless instrument itself, soaring and swooping with the powerful grace of an eagle. Yannatou studied with dialect coaches to ensure the authenticity of her pronunciation, but her transcendent artistry makes these songs personal expressions of faith and love.

Although they are both female vocalists in the Sephardic vein, Consuelo Luz could hardly differ more from Yannatou. Luz' voice is smoky and sultry, closer to Sade, Anita Baker... or her fellow Cuban, Celia Cruz. Luz was born in Chile where she was raised Catholic, only to discover and embrace her Jewish heritage later in life. Moving to Cuba, she imbibed her adopted home's tropicality, and it glows through her recent release, "Dezeo."

"Dezeo" is Ladino for "desire," and the album explores both romantic and spiritual yearning, dedicating about half the tracks to each kind of longing. Luz' vocals are breathy, earthy, and altogether sophisticated. The music itself is stunningly played, evoking both tricky Latin rhythms and insinuating Arabic overtones, ending up somewhere near the Portuguese fado style.

Sharing Cuba with Luz is percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez. His latest for the Tzadik label is "El Danzon de Moises." Tzadik, founded by sax guru John Zorn, is famed for the ferocious innovation of its artists, and Rodriguez earns his membership here.

The CD is recklessly inventive, restlessly intelligent, and relentlessly fun. Fans of "Buena Vista Social Club" will enjoy this Jewish spin on Cuban style. The first number, "El Polaco," gives away its inspiration in its name- it's a Latinized polka. Other songs reveal Greek and Arabic sources. If you are taking a Latin dance class, impress the heck out of your teacher and slip this disc in the player. And if you can't dance, take it along on your next long drive, and smile the whole way there.

While not strictly Sephardic, the music of Uganda's Jews reminds us of the other element of Caribbean music- the sounds of Africa. The Abayudaya, as Uganda's Jews are called, date back to the late 1910s, but only recently have they had access to modern recording equipment. Their music is much like that found on Paul Simon's "Graceland," in both its sprightly guitar picking and haunting choirs. They sing a bit in English, but mostly in Hebrew and L'Uganda, their native tongue.

Their second release is "Music of Worship and Celebration." The first 13 tracks are prayers done with the whole choir- including children- singing a cappella in close harmony, ending up somewhere between gospel and madrigal.

The final seven songs, also prayerful in content, are accompanied by breezy guitars and playful synths. These tracks are a breath of tropical air. "We Are Happy" one highlight, is a Purim song, and like the others, is done in a light reggae style, more like Jimmy Cliff or Ziggy Marley than Peter Tosh or Bob Marley. The album is an assured follow-up their debut, "Shalom Everybody Everywhere!" which has fewer tracks but a bit more variety. The new one boasts better instrumentation and production quality, however. To learn more about the Abayudaya and their uplifting music, visit

For those wishing to play Sephardic music, Judy Frankel has recently created a songbook with an accompanying CD. Frankel's career dates back to the rediscovery of ethnic folk music that emerged from 1960's coffeehouses, and she is still actively touring and recording. She has a Harvard degree in medieval music, but learned many songs from descendants of Inquisition-fleeing Jews living in Portugal and the Southwestern U.S. Frankel also sings in 20 languages, but this volume, "Sephardic Songs in Judeo-Spanish," focuses on Ladino. On the CD packaged with the book, Frankel presents the songs in her clear, straightforward alto, joined by her own guitar, plus the occasional oud or dumbek. She carefully enunciates both the words and notes of 17 of the songbook's 50 selections for the learner, but the CD stands alone as a very listenable work.

Jews of Sephardic heritage have created a world's worth of mind-opening melodies and heart-stopping rhythms. They have integrated the musics of dozens of peoples into their own, and so have enriched the Jewish experience beyond measure. Those familiar only with the Western trends of folk, klezmer and cantorial music are truly missing half the story of Jewish music. The good news is, the rest is now an open book.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Paul Wieder is a public relations associate at the Jewish United Fund and a columnist for JUF News. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


© 2002, JUF News