Scattered Roots 

Congregation Sherith Israel brings music of the Spanish Jewish diaspora to Nashville for the very first time

Congregation Sherith Israel brings music of the Spanish Jewish diaspora to Nashville for the very first time

Referring to the Hebrew word for Spain, Sephardic culture represents those traditions of Judaism that originated with the 1492 exile from that country. In this diaspora, Spanish Jews and their descendants settled in various Mediterranean port cities in Southern Europe, North Africa and parts of the Levant. Later resettlement reached as far as Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

The traditional music that the Sephardim brought with them absorbed the song forms, rhythms and techniques of their host cultures. Sephardic music in fact embraces a range of folk and liturgical songs that have been influenced by court and popular styles. Themes and texts from classical Egyptian music entered the tradition, as did Turkish modal scales. As opposed to the better-known klezmer music of Eastern European Jews, Sephardic music reflects wider non-Western influences, which can take two nearly distinct directions in the Balkan and Moroccan communities. Though melisma—the variations of pitch over a single syllable—characterizes all Jewish liturgical music, Sephardic versions of this technique are more likely to rise to a higher range and express a fervid longing that owes much to Medieval Ottoman rituals.

Besides prayer and other forms of worship, Sephardic music includes folk genres that give voice to special moments of life. Epic or romance poetry, lullabies and songs expressing hope for the future of children, festivals and philosophical musings all have their place. Ceremonial music is sung in Hebrew and other forms in Ladino, a vernacular language comparable to Yiddish, but rooted in Spanish. Bridging sacred and secular culture, Sephardic music enriches everyday life with song, while Torah readings are further humanized by an array of melodic and tonal changes that respond to these stories.

Like so many other folk cultures, the biblical stories inspire popular songs that embellish these tales, connecting them to the rites of passage and post-exilic state of any community member's life. The tale of Esther and Mordecai, for instance, can remind a congregation of the fear of extermination by a host country suddenly turned hostile to Jews, while also offering hope of deliverance and celebrating the exile's resourcefulness.

No current revival of Sephardic music could ever hope to re-create the entirety of so geographically and historically diverse a set of traditions. The traditions nevertheless continue to thrive among synagogues in Southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of America. The recovery of any one ethnomusicological strand usually reveals layers of history and musical practices, despite tendencies of assimilation to the host culture and community uprooting.

As a leader of Sephardic congregations in metropolitan New York, Rabbi Moshe Tessone (who also is a cantor) performs without accompaniment on the Sabbath and holidays, but has carried forth the emotional and technical demands of this music through the authority of his masterly voice and training. On Monday at Sherith Israel, he'll be performing a wide selection of Sephardic music, accompanied by a keyboard player. It will be the first concert of this musical tradition ever in Nashville. Co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Nashville, the concert is free and open to the public.

7:30 p.m. March 14 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 3600 West End Ave.

—Bill Levine

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