In Search of Sephardic Music

By Joel Bresler.

My love of Sephardic music began in my college years. I loved Renaissance music, especially Spanish Renaissance music. A group named Hespèrion XX brought out a double LP of Christian and Sephardic music. (See here for a discussion of performing Sephardic music as Early Music, but that’s a whole separate discussion. I’m grateful for my introduction to the genre, however it started!) I didn’t immediately fall down a rabbit hole, as you will see from this chronology: Perhaps a decade later, I resolved to start collecting every recording I could find with at least one Sephardic song, especially those with songs sung in Judeo-Spanish (also known as Ladino). Subsequently, I decided I might as well create a discography of the genre, which initially covered recordings from the LP era to the present. As a next step, I added a Union Catalog (a catalog of records in different collections) of recordings from the 78-era. It required a completely different set of research and introduced me to the wonderful and very weird world of 78-rpm collectors (interesting sidebar – 78s in Turkish are known as taş plak- literally “stone records.” If you have ever lifted a stack of 78s, you probably understand…) And then, I launched a website to publish most of my research online: www.sephardicmusic.org.

Favorite, a German record company, recorded 14 songs in Izmir 1912 and 1913 in Izmir, including ten by Isaac Algazi.

Along the way, I struck up a partnership with the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University, and their esteemed director, Prof. Edwin Seroussi. I have supported Edwin’s work in various ways over the past twenty years. At one point, when he was researching the Ladino counting song “A la una yo naci,” he had twelve copies to draw from at Hebrew University. I sent him digital versions of over 200 renditions, enriching (and complicating!) his research (see here for more on the song). Over the years, Edwin has run several graduate seminars that examine how the performance style of various songs has developed over the past century. Together we pick a song that was recorded at least once pre-WWII and I send him “samplers” of many different versions for his students’ research. Sometimes there are only a few versions, as in the song Santa Helena (those of you with a Northeastern account can access the different versions of the song here). Other times there can be dozens or more versions, as demonstrated above with “A la una.”

My most recent projects with Hebrew University include a 4-CD re-release of songs by the Sephardic Turkish singer, Haim Effendi, and a forthcoming 4-CD set showcasing all the Sephardic songs from the EMI Archive. Soon, more than half of all the Sephardic 78s ever sold will be available to modern listeners. We hope it will be a valuable resource for aficionados, performers, and researchers.

If I can support any researchers or performers reading this blog post, please reach out (j.bresler@northeastern.edu). I’ve also enjoyed lecturing in Northeastern’s Music Department about the collection and what it’s taught me along the way and would welcome future talks. For those wishing to hear more, here’s a general playlist available on Spotify.

Joel Bresler is Northeastern’s Technology Portfolio Director, where he works with start-ups and corporations to license the University’s inventions and research. He is also passionate about Sephardic music, and is the founder and curator of sephardicmusic.org.

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