Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas. Ruth Davis. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2015.

Reviewed by Samuel Torjman Thomas

The Iberian Peninsula has served as a focal point for enhancing our understanding of early modern racism, the age of nautical exploration, migration, memory, the advent of European colonialism, and perhaps most intensely as the site of interreligious intersectionality between Muslims, Jews, and Christians and its consequences. The notion of diaspora has informed the work of many scholars in the modern academy. A topic of great interest in fields such as cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology, and even its own field, Diaspora Studies, diaspora has also long been a bedrock topic for Jewish studies. In this edited volume, Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas, we find valuable contributions to discourses about Iberian history, Jewish culture, diaspora, and musical development.

Within this edited volume, we find a close analysis of the dynamics involved in several animating factors of the Sephardi diaspora, including schism, exile, mass emigration, resettlement, intraethnic synthesis, postmodernist imaginaries, and transnationalism. The title suggests a pluralization of the Sephardi diaspora, as an experience that perhaps informs an array of diasporas. We are encouraged to consider this community’s experience of collective identity development as multitudinal, touching several disparate geographical centers and moments on a timeline that stretches over five centuries. Through the included chapters and their focus on a field of expressive culture (music), we can better appreciate how the Jewish experience of diaspora involves much more than the reinforcement of some overarching and monolithic transnational community. We learn how the dynamics of the Jewish diaspora experience provide the necessary context for new transnational layers to emerge. While fraught on so many levels and in so many ways, these dynamics are reconceived in this book and represented as the location of the endurance of expressive culture. Music serves as the vehicle of choice here, as a means of navigating the emergence and realization of these new diasporic Jewish identities rooted in reproducing vibrant and vital connections to a Sephardi (Andalusian) homeland. [1]

With a growing interest in Jewish expressive cultures, the opportunity and need for contributions to an expanding body of literature in Jewish music research makes this a valuable addition. Specialist language pertaining to music may be intimidating to some without musical or musicological training, but the inherent interdisciplinarity of ethnomusicology makes the discussions in this volume accessible by providing comfortable ground for the musically uninitiated. Several chapters do include some music theory and analysis, but even such instances rely upon an ethnomusicological methodology, which provides a much wider contextualization of the subject matter for maximum reader accessibility. This volume also serves academic discourses beyond ethnomusicology, especially those sub-fields of Jewish studies that have long needed more social-scientific lenses through which to appreciate the role of expressive culture. For Jewish studies in particular, the focus here on Sephardi expressive cultures and their crucial place in the history of Jewish life sheds light on an area still sorely underserved. This book scratches a gnawing itch for more works that can help to expand the sorely limited literature on topics pertaining to the cultures of Mediterranean Jewry.

In the introduction of the book, the editor Ruth Davis explores the dynamics of the Jewish experience that the subsequent chapters address. Topics include displacement, mythologization, contradictions, synthesis, and affective performance. She begins at the geographic heart of the book, in al-Andalus, with a fast and furious gloss on the Sephardic Jewish historical experience in Iberia. She reminds us of the Golden Age narrative, one that mythologizes a splendorous age of positive intercultural exchange, most explicitly preserved in the textual relics of the poets, philosophers, theologians, and scholars, and that is also perversely used by Europe’s Early Jewish Enlightenment thinkers to imagine hopeful possibilities for modernity. She tempers this exuberance by presenting counter-myths about the Iberian homeland as well. In sum, as we march through the subsequent chapters, Davis wants us to recognize that by focusing on musical expressions in Jewish life since the great schism that produced the Sephardi diaspora, in different geographic locales, contexts, and by presence and absence, we will be better equipped with more sources for engaging the argument of the Golden Age narrative.

Contributors to this volume include both well-established and newer voices in the field: Dwight Reynolds, Edwin Seroussi, Tony Langlois, Philip Bohlman, Daniel Jütte, Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, Piergabriele Mancuso, John Morgan O’Connell, Jonathan Shannon, and Carmel Raz. Each contributing scholar fleshes out details about consequences of the Sephardi exodus, shedding light on significant corners of the diasporic experience to give fodder to the discourse on the Jewish relationship to al-Andalus. No less hearty of a contribution is Stephen Blum’s afterword, presented as an erudite bird’s-eye view of pertinent issues in ethnomusicology surrounding diaspora musics, and as a voice of the onlooker at the conference [2] from whence this volume was conceived. He helps us complicate notions of diasporic musics by challenging us to consider the ways in which musical agents (specialists, lay performers, community leaders) develop, engage with, and break from “systems” in a perpetual process of regeneration. Blum explains that “a system or repertory of actions may be those with which a performer negotiates a specific piece or role or those with which a performing ensemble presents itself to its actual or potential public.” (203) In the diasporic process, systems governing communal and individual behaviors are by necessity being re-negotiated. Thus, musical behaviors are subject to change by musical agents in new cultural contexts.

Dwight Reynolds opens the collected chapters by rooting us in the convivencia, unpacking in an expectedly concise and sharp rendition the intercultural mashup that serves as the primal source for the context of Andalusian music. He throws down the gauntlet in favor of rendering the Andalusian tradition(s) of music-making essentially a result of a cosmopolitanism inherent in Iberian society. Stretching the ground of this Andalus ethos, from the eighth to the beginning of the seventeenth century, he sees a multi-century foundation for musical tradition(s) that is built upon porous ethnic boundaries and thus naturally inclined to contribute to the burgeoning cultural (Re)naissance of Iberia’s northern neighbors. Reynolds’ assertion is that the exodus the volume’s title suggests is not centered on the population movement per se, but rather on the abandonment of an Andalusian ethos of multiculturalism and filtering influences that animated the musical cultures of the region.

Similarly, in chapters by Tony Langlois and Jonathan Shannon, we find ways in which Sephardi musical culture operates in the shadows of dominant musical styles in Algeria and Syria, respectively. Langlois discusses the pervasive impact of Jewish musicians on the mid-twentieth century popular music genre chanson Oranaise—a musical style related to Arabo-Andalusian classical and light classical music—and their occlusion from the official narrative in the modern era. For Shannon, it is the “phantom” Jewish qanun master who is indicative of a similar erasure in Syria’s Andalus-based muwashshat.

Approaching the vapors of Sephardi Jewish musical culture from a different angle, Philip Bohlman’s chapter shows an active effort to draw upon the musical past of Andalus as a way to emphasize the Golden Age narrative. In the work of European humanist Johan Gottfried Herder, al-Andalus is presented as a prototypical example for Enlightenment Europe, grounded in humanism, and making way for an appreciation of Jewish otherness. This speaks not to particular examples of Sephardi musical expression on the move, relocating as part of new diasporas, but rather at efforts to re-evaluate the nature of European Enlightenment societies through a recognition of the persistent other (e.g., the Jew) who is never really here but perpetually there in their transnational community.

Several chapters focus on instances of Jewish musical expression centered on localized examples, enabling us to better understand the processes of diasporic formation. For Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, the focus is on a decidedly feminine Andalus expression—Judeo-Espagnole (Ladino) song repertoire—and the evidence from Moroccan synagogue music that shows how the feminine permeates a male-dominated ritual space. For Daniel Jütte, Early Modern Italy offers us a potent case study of the Andalusian ethos on the move, in exodus from Iberia but gathered into, and subsequently influential on, the Italian Jewish community. Here, musicians are cultural intermediaries and agents of interaction and collaboration from which is born a synthesis between Jews and Christians that catalyzes advances in artistic life. Despite the ghetto-ization of European Jewry (i.e. Venice), the Andalusian ethos marches on in Italy’s interconfessional communities wrought with the forbidden relationships inspired by musical associations.

Piergabriele Mancuso’s contribution offers a glimpse into the liturgical music of San Nicandro, a small southern Italian Jewish community. While this chapter offers interesting musical analyses, and a partial repertoire study, it is not clear where or how this piece contributes to the volume’s overall theme. Maybe here we are encouraged to reflect on a more generalized theme of musical exodus, or even the multitudinal nature of the Jewish diaspora to include several overlooked micro-cultures. Similarly, it is unclear what the purpose the musical transcriptions and analysis serve. Perhaps the most compelling point is that we are looking at a Jewish community, far flung in its tenuous connection to the overarching Jewish Diaspora, keeping some hint of a relationship to the Jewish transnational community alive in the expressive culture of music-making.

In his chapter, John Morgan O’Connell explores the early Republican period in Turkey (1923-1938). He focuses on consequences, such as migration, a burgeoning recording industry, linguistics, nationalist ideologies, and differing interactions with Turkish Sufi groups, impacting both Sephardi and Ashkenazi musicians. The binary between Sephardi and Ashkenazi musical cultures is perhaps emphasized too much here, presented as it is as monoliths clashing. Edwin Seroussi offers a case study of a particular Seliḥot liturgy, a repertoire of song-poems by 11th century Sephardi poet Isaac ibn Ghiyyat, performed for a millennium on the lips of penitents vocalizing their repentances in al-Andalus, then primarily in Djerba and Tripoli, and now in Israel. He highlights the porous nature of boundaries (gender, geographic, etc.) and the place of modern recording as a documentation of practice which allows for regeneration and memorialization. Carmel Raz unpacks an effort by the band Tafillalt, an ensemble rooted in the institutionalized piyyut (devotional poem) movement in modern Israel. In this chapter, we get a sense of what performing a diaspora identity looks like, whereby diaspora is staged for commercial consumption as a representation of the ingathering of different Jewish musical cultures. By tracing a single arrangement of the well-known piyyut Yedid Nefesh, Raz shows us how purveyors of the piyyut movement are actively packaging multiculturalism as a means for reaching the observant and secular sectors of modern Israeli society. Perhaps this is what Mark Slobin (2003) so presciently suggested nearly two decades ago may be the “destiny of diaspora.”

Returning to reflect further on Davis’s opening chapter and its final part, she brings us to sort of coda by highlighting the example of the postmodernist musical outfit System Ali. The overarching thrust of exodus and ingathering is that diasporas, exemplified in their musical correlates, show the perpetual tensions of settlement and displacement, in and out, positivist and negativist, here and there. There is certainly no one way to understand Sepharad, nor what its Jewish community has bequeathed upon the world. Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas is an important addition to the literature on Sephardi musical cultures, and offers us a rich and variegated look at its many routes. While rooted in an Iberian homeland, one thing is certain, and that is that the proverbial band remains on tour and plays on.

Samuel Torjman Thomas, Ethnomusicology and Jewish Studies, City University of New York


[1] Sephardi or Andalusian in this context refers to Jews who inhabited the majority of the Iberian Peninsula. This includes most of modern day Spain and Portugal, including but extending well beyond the modern-day southern Spanish province of Andalusia. The use of Sephardi, al-Andalus, Andalusian throughout this book review refers to the greater geographic territory of Medieval Iberian Jewish life.

[2] ICTM Colloquium, Musical Exodus: Al Andalus and its Musical Diasporas. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. July 2008.