Eastern Mediterranean Judeo-Spanish Songs from the EMI Archive Trust (1907-1912). Rivka Havassy and Edwin Seroussi. Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 2020.

Reviewed by Vanessa Paloma Elbaz

The EMI Archive Trust houses a collection of Jewish music from the Eastern Sephardim, originally released by Gramophone and Zonophone on 78 RPM between 1907 and 1912. This collection was released by the Jewish Music Research Center as a recording, with a physical CD and an online presence, including liner notes in English and Hebrew, song texts and their translations providing a wealth of material for this review. The collection includes songs in Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and Serbo-Croatian. Ladino selections are numerous, demonstrating the public presence of Ladino in Ottoman urban centers of this area at the time, despite the minority status of its community. The confluence of “the predominantly urban character of the late Ottoman Jewish society and its increasing middle class aspirations and leaning towards Westernization during the last decades of the Empire, coupled with the Jewish ethnicity of some key managerial figures of the European record companies, contributed to the presence of the song in Ladino in the early Eastern Mediterranean discography” (11-12). As was also the case with early Judeo-Arabic recordings, Jewish producers almost monopolized positions of local representation for international recording companies. This may have been partially due to the legacy of the Alliance Israelite Universelle’s training in French for Mediterranean Jews since the nineteenth century, which facilitated exchange and collaboration with European companies by the early twentieth century. Such collaboration allowed local musicians to create a dynamic market for the recording of Jewish artists and repertoires throughout the Ottoman empire and North Africa as recording technologies were developed and monetized. Another release (from 2008) from the JMRC in this broad category is focuses on Odeon’s recordings of Haim Effendi from 1907 in Turkey.

This four CD release by the Jewish Music Research Center in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a ground-breaking achievement which is also fully available online. The release of previously unavailable recordings to the greater public is accompanied by a booklet of commentary and analysis prepared by Rivka Havassy and Edwin Seroussi. Focused on various centers of musical activity from the pivotal years of the early twentieth century in four of the Ottoman Empire’s Eastern Mediterranean urban centers, these recordings offer a rare window into vocal and instrumental timbres, arrangements, and affect of early twentieth-century Sephardi performances.

Seventy-eight tracks were chosen from one hundred selections in Judeo-Spanish that exist in the archive. Questions regarding the remaining twenty-two will be discussed later in this review. All seventy-eight are fully online, and the booklet is available as a PDF download, (https://jewish-music.huji.ac.il/content/22952) making this an invaluable resource for scholars, performers and the wider public. The website also houses a release concert from November 2020 by Hadass Pal Yarden: Hidden Voices (קולות גנוזים – שירי לדינו מלפני מאה שנה ויותר: הדס פל ירדן),  demonstrating to performers around the world how they might interpret some of the repertoire found in these recordings for contemporary audiences. In the absence of an unbroken chain of transmission, archival recordings have become primary sources for bringing forgotten repertoire back into circulation, as well as permitting transformations and reappropriation of traditional and local repertoires—a crucial step in the maintenance of a vibrant and live musical tradition.

Until now, scholarship on commercial recordings from Ottoman Jews has been primarily focused on the work of well-known figures such as Haim Effendi and Isaac Algazi, and in later years Jack Mayesh and Victoria Hazan, amongst others. Joel Bresler’s visionary work from the early 2000s was a precursor to the sonic “digging” that this release showcases; his compilation of Ladino 78 RPM recordings references some of the recordings in this collection (https://www.sephardicmusic.org/78survey.htm). His contribution to the digitization and negotiation with the EMI Archive Trust determined the viability of the project. The collaboration between Bresler, JMRC, the EMI Archive Trust, and researchers who have worked on collection, recording and dissemination of Ottoman Jewish music is a testament to the value of large collaborative projects which can encompass compounded technological, musical, and linguistic complexities to provide a picture of the breadth of historical cultural capital.

This collection includes performers from the major Jewish centers of Salonika and Sarajevo as well as Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey. Presenting various performing possibilities from the period, a large portion of the recordings are of male performers in public spaces singing repertoire from the synagogue, the cabaret, and the café. However, a few women soloists have been included, as well as choral recordings from Sarajevo’s choirs, permitting contemporary listeners to hear less commercially disseminated modes of performance, and the manners in which Eastern Mediterranean Sephardi women’s voices might have been heard outside of the private sphere.

The EMI Archive Trust’s collection of Judeo-Spanish songs places them in the avant-garde of technological breakthroughs that were occurring in the arena of recording technology in the early twentieth century. Many traditional songs, primarily transmitted orally, were confronted with sonic mechanical capture in a campaign for safeguarding from loss, but which had underpinnings of cultural colonialism, since the opinions and aesthetics of the singers were not taken into consideration. During the same period that commercial recordings of traditional songs were burgeoning, Spanish philologists were beginning to compile and record the large corpus of Judeo-Spanish song throughout communities around the Mediterranean basin. This fact invites us to consider Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay on the confrontation between traditional individual production of a work of art and the reproducibility of art for the masses, and the ineffable aspects of the artistic experience that are affected in this process. His statement, “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” [1] assumes that the “aura” cannot be transmitted without the physical hand or voice of the artist as an active agent of creation. This period was a pinnacle of Sephardi cultural life in the Eastern Mediterranean before the catastrophe of the Second World War. The voices and instrumentations, with their arrangements and particular performative choices, give a valuable window into the aesthetics of the period, even if highly mediated by both producers and performers.

As the authors mention on various occasions, the recordings presented in this release represent a highly curated and mediated selection of repertoire, performed under particular circumstances, by both famous and lesser-known Jewish singers from the Ottoman Sephardi world. “The recording industry generated a dialectic process at several levels, between artists’ predilections and those of the public, between repetition and originality, between limitations of recording space and the traditional length of musical pieces.” (11). They are a window into a seminal and transitional moment for this music, but are by no means indicative of wider norms of society. The outsized presence of Judeo-Spanish sounds on Sephardi commercial recordings may have served as a tool for integration into Western musical society through their use of music as cultural capital for philanthropic events as was done by the Jewish Tamburitza and Support Society La Gloria of Sarajevo, prominently featured in this collection. Another collective that has come to prominence with this collection is CES, Compagnie Espagnole de Salonique, which recorded 33 songs in 1907, amounting to a third of the full collection.

A variety of genres appear in the collection: copious examples of the popular sarki, a form of Ottoman classical music art song,and Ladino versions of popular Greek and Turkish songs, however, few romances are included, and those that appear are in shortened versions. Various songs for the life cycle, such as songs for birth, circumcision and pre-wedding mikveh celebrations for the bride are included. A collection of political songs in Ladino including the Zionist hymn HaTikva Nuestra Esperanza (74, 78) to songs about military service and the young Turks revolution also appear interspersed throughout the recordings. A few selihot have been included, one on the binding of Isaac, and the other, Bezokhri ‘al mishkavi (50) which has a text that is different from that which is printed in mahzorim, reminding the reader that in Sephardi communities often, “el que sabe, sabe” (he who knows, knows) demonstrating how oral knowledge in liturgical text overrides the printed word. This resource can become a site of historical fieldwork in instances such as this.

As one plunges into the multi-layered experience of text, commentary, and recordings various questions come to mind. The most obvious one is why the twenty-two missing recordings from the full corpus of 100 recordings were omitted from the final release. The listener can only imagine that they may be damaged, or that there was not enough space on the CDs. In the original recordings, musical decisions were made because of space such as songs that were truncated because the side of a record coming to an end, or extended with instrumental sections to fill out the end of the side of shellac. An explanation of why some songs which are repeated were chosen for inclusion, while others from the collection were not, would clarify this final act of curation for contemporary consumption.

Listening to the recordings themselves requires concentration and effort, as crackles and white noise layer over the instruments and voices demonstrating that technology can bring the sounds of the past to contemporary technology, but that some elements from the past cannot be ‘mastered out.’It is wonderful to hear the voices clearly and the instrumental lines and arrangements clearly, providing ideas for contemporary musicians. The performance style is far removed from current trends, which means that listeners may want to study the text and context from the booklet and later enjoy the recording with a deeper understanding of what they are hearing.

The online resource could have been enhanced by offering the text of each song and its liner note explanation from the booklet alongside one another, such that the text would be available to read while listening to the song itself. As it stands now, the listener must toggle between reading and listening, which may become tiresome after a few songs, causing the listener to choose to engage solely with the sound or with the text. This author realizes that expanding the digital presentation in that manner would have implied a further layer of technical work, financial investment, and online storage which may have been outside of the scope of this release, but could be implemented for a later iteration or future releases.

Knowing the long-term engagement between Edwin Seroussi’s scholarship and early recorded Sephardi performers, this release under the umbrella of JMRC (in collaboration with the EMI Archive Trust and Joel Bresler’s Sephardic Music project) presents a natural development of decades of serious and methodical work. These “jewels” of the EMI Archive Trust (https://www.emiarchivetrust.org/launch-of-judeo-spanish-songs-from-the-emi-archive-trust-1907-1912/) also appear as rare treasures  for this group of scholars and Sephardi culture brokers at a time when the last members of the pre-World War II communities are passing away, forever taking the sounds and memories of that lost world with them. This collection offers a sonic glimpse into pockets of that vibrant world, giving us pause to consider Benjamin’s critique of the loss of the “aura” implied in this mechanical capture. Would we prefer the entropy that non-recording would have implied for these voices, maintaining a performed imperative? Would non-mechanical reproduction have aided to maintain a commitment of transmission to future generations? I am not sure that would have been guaranteed. We and future generations are grateful to have this bouquet of sonic jewels available for study and performance into the twenty-first century.

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, University of Cambridge and INALCO – Sorbonne Paris Cité

[1] Benjamin, W. 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, [1935 essay] New York: Schocken Books.