Sonic Ruins of Modernity: Judeo-Spanish Folksongs Today. Edwin Seroussi. London: Routledge. 2023.

Reviewed by Lori Sen

A minority within the Jewish people, Sephardim are a triple diasporic population, who carried with them their culture, traditions, language (Judeo-Spanish), and oral literature. Judeo-Spanish folksongs are among the Sephardim’s oral literature and reflect the diverse influences of the many cultures they encountered throughout their five-hundred-year-long journey from medieval Iberia to all over the modern world. With Sonic Ruins of Modernity, musicologist Edwin Seroussi introduces the contemporary concept of folksong (in the post-tradition era) as a sonic ruin, regularly visited by tourists interested in exploring the history of other cultures.

Highlighting the fact that many Sephardic folksongs are relatively recent and modern creations, he asks, “Why and how, in spite of all the social and cultural transformations of modernity, folksongs are still with us as relics from the ‘tradition period’?” Attributing the eccentricity of this repertoire to the triple diasporic condition of the Sephardic Jews, he presents Sephardic folksongs’ fluid process of creation, evolution, circulation, and preservation in a collection of essays that comprise thorough archival research, interviews with Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, musicians, as well as members of Sephardic Jewish communities around the world. In his essays, Seroussi focuses on five specific songs that successfully complement his discussion of how “as modern ruins, the songs are reconstructed, preserved, and cared for by different agents.” His essays are enriched with fascinating stories of encounters between Jewish and non-Jewish communities from the 17th century on, leading to meaningful exchanges between Jewish and non-Jewish folksongs. The essays are accompanied by audiovisual materials available to the readers online at, under “Sonic Ruins.”

To better appreciate the value of Seroussi’s research and findings, the reader may want to familiarize themselves with the concept of diaspora, as well as the triple diasporic experience of Sephardim. In his 2015 article Jewish music and diaspora, Edwin Seroussi states that diaspora is “referred in Greek Antiquity to a population of a specific geographical origin that became scattered throughout a wider area […and] in the past half century diaspora was adopted to describe every possible physical or imagined, voluntary or forced displacement of individuals or communities from their real or imaginary homeland for multiple reasons (political, economic, racial, religious, etc.).” He later adds that “diaspora is most effective as an explanatory tool when applied, simply, to ‘the existence of an identified population that feels that it is away from its homeland, however imagined, however distant in time and space’ and more subtly, that ‘it involves more than demographics…some sort of consciousness of separation, a gap, a disjuncture must be present.’” [1] Based on this definition one can conclude that the Jewish populations in Western Europe, North Africa and the Arab and Persian Near East in the early medieval period were already diasporic populations. In Sonic Ruins of Modernity, Seroussi draws attention to the triple diasporic experience of modern Sephardim due to the: (1) removal of Jews from the Holy Land after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem; (2) expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula; and (3) forced and voluntary migrations from the locations they settled in after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. Going back to Seroussi’s argument in his 2015 article, this triple diasporic experience “sometimes generated an overemphasized longing for a lost homeland. … [and] music became the field of cultural expression in which diaspora had one of its strongest showings against its rhetorical negation.”[2]

The first song discussed at length in the book is Las horas de la vida, also known as A la una yo naci, a rather popular Judeo-Spanish song performed in the post-tradition era. To clarify, Seroussi defines post-traditional era as follows: “…the flexible time span in which folksongs are detached from the folk that maintained them in their traditional stage, acquiring new life among an amorphous and global social constellation of archivists, arrangers, producers, performers, critics and audiences.” In his essay, Seroussi uses scholarly work on Las horas de la vida by eminent researchers of Sephardic folksong, LP recordings of performances by Joaquín Díaz (Temas Sefardíes, 1972), Gloria Levy (Sephardic Songs, 1958), and a 78-rpm recording (1907) by Haim Effendi (1853-1937), as well as transcriptions and/or musical arrangements of the song by Moshe Attias (1898-1973), Isaac Levy ( 1919-1977), Léon Algazi (1890-1971), Lucien L. Bernheim (1884?-1944?), and Wolf Simoni (1907-1991) to compare the textual and musical variations and discrepancies among the existing versions of this folksong. Meanwhile, the introduction of the song as an old serial non-Jewish Spanish folksong, as well as the substitution of Christian reference (“me bavtizaron”) in prior Hispanic versions by the neutral “m’engrandecí” in the Sephardic versions adds another layer of mystery for the readers who are familiar with the Sephardic version. Although the Sephardic versions became more famous on the global scale, Las horas de la vida turns out to be not only a relatively modern Sephardic song with a Hispanic origin (possibly adopted by the Ottoman Sephardim from wandering Spanish vaudeville artists), but also a song recreated by different Sephardic musicians in various poetic and musical combinations. The recordings of only a few versions have been available to a wider audience, and thus, the ones that were eventually out of circulation became unfamiliar—an impact of commercial recordings and their currency.

Las prendas de la novia is another Judeo-Spanish song investigated by Seroussi. It is a song extensively documented among the Ottoman Sephardim and Spanish-speaking districts of Northern Morocco in the 20th century. This Sephardic romance is a wedding song that describes the female body through a series of ‘grotesque’ metaphors, resembling the body imagery in the Song of Songs, in a dialogue between the bride and a second voice. While discussing the potential origin and history of this song, Seroussi makes a number of fascinating points in this essay; for instance, the presence of these types of descriptive texts in Arabic poetry and folksong as wasfs, which were performed at weddings and as entertainment in cafés. However, the poetic description of the female body in Latin romances vs. Arabic wasfs show major differences stemming from the distinctness of beauty and aesthetics between these cultures. Seroussi refers to Las prendas de la novia as a Sephardic wasf, and points out the “remarkable uniformity of all versions” of the song in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean Sephardic diasporas. As in all chapters investigating songs, there is a textual and musical comparison among all versions known to the scholar. He then explores when and by whom this song was performed in different locations, from Thessaloniki to Tetuán, which offers a window into the historical lives and customs of Jews in these various locations. A section in this chapter also focuses on the wasf in the piyyut repertoire, and mentions the adoption of Turkish and Arabic melodies from secular songs in singing piyyutim, while suggesting its resemblance of Las prendas de la novia in terms of aesthetics, rhetoric, and performance style. Nonetheless, the essay’s main point is not to investigate the origin of this song, but to reveal the construction of it as a wedding song to be sung by women through eliminating metaphors of any strong erotic undertones. In short, Seroussi’s essay traces the transformation of the song due to censorship based on current norms of modesty.

The third song discussed at length in Sonic Ruins of Modernity is another adoption from the Hispanic repertoire known under several titles: La cantica de la Santa Elena, La joven de Santa Elena, El hermano maldito, La Lavandera requerida por su hermano, although it is most commonly called El hermano infame in Sephardic studies. The subject matter of the song is “one of the most ancient taboos of humanity: incest.” Seroussi’s essay explores the Latin American and Peninsular versions of the song, as well as its late origins and affiliations to several other genres, such as literature de cordel (repertoire of blind troubadours) and Mexican corrido (stories told in song). He offers detailed musical and textual comparisons in tracing the numerous versions of this song. Twenty-eight versions of El hermano infame were collected in Cuba and twenty-two in Costa Rica, and yet, according to Seroussi, only a few scholars included this presumably 19th-century song in their collections. He adds that this rather popular Hispanic song made its way into the Sephardic repertoire through the agency of performers, collectors, and artists, and provides relevant examples of performances and recordings of the song in the Sephardic tradition.

Perhaps one of the most popular Judeo-Spanish folksongs, Cuando el rey Nimrod (also called Abraham Avinu), is a narrative song that tells the story of the birth of Abraham, the biblical prophet. It is a copla, which is another distinctive genre among Sephardic folksongs. Coplas are essentially poems that have definite structures; “they are strophic poems, each one made up of a variable number of stanzas with the same metric scheme and same theme running the length of the poem. … [They] also vary in length, the shortest comprising fewer than ten stanzas, the longest being several hundred lines long.” [3] Coplas clearly reflect the influence of the surrounding musical cultures. These songs are generally associated with Jewish tradition and history, moralistic themes, values and beliefs, and social and political events. This genre flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries when they were published in Istanbul, Salonica, Vienna and Livorno. Therefore, the texts tend to be more modern, and the poets can usually be identified. Seroussi investigates the textual and musical history of Cuando el rey Nimrod and informs the reader that the text is found in aljamiado  (i.e., Ladino text written in Hebrew characters) in a late-18th century manuscript from Bosnia. The copla was documented including fifteen stanzas of four lines each; however, the catchy refrain was not a part of the original text. Through a study of relevant documents and published music scores, including those of Wolf Simoni and Léon Algazi, Seroussi explores the network of agents leading to the relatively recent transformation of Cuando el rey Nimrod towards the hit two-stanza song it is today, including its catchy refrain.

The last song discussed in the book, Bendigamos al altisímo, is a prayer in Spanish sung to the Sephardic liturgical melody for Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea). It represents a minority among the Sephardim—the Iberian Jewish conversos, who returned to their Jewish faith around the mid-16th century. Seroussi finds this song to be exceptional due to its thick and complex textual genealogy, but also due to its maintenance among the Western Spanish-Portuguese Jews despite elements of the song’s origins being found from Morocco to Thessaloniki. The essay explores the song’s strong Moroccan and Ottoman connections, but finds its roots to be the Spanish-Portuguese Jews in Italy. The earliest documentation of the song was in Livorno in 1778, although its current preservation is a result of Rabbi Joseph Corcos’s work at the Spanish-Portuguese Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York City (published in 1921).

Sonic Ruins of Modernity offers a unique lens on the culture and history of the Sephardim through discussions of reconstruction, preservation, and circulation of Judeo-Spanish folksongs in the post-tradition era, in a space that is no longer exclusive to Sephardic communities. Still, this repertoire is important in maintaining a sense of Judeo-Spanish nationhood, and alleviating a “Ladinostalgia” shared by a small, global diasporic community. Regardless of the genre, a study of musical and textual contents of a song sheds significant light on stories of people and events represented in that song. Edwin Seroussi successfully proves that the journey of the creation, recreation, and distribution of a song is valuable information in this pursuit.

Lori Şen

School of Music, University of Maryland, College Park

The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University

[1] Seroussi, Edwin. “Jewish Music and Diaspora.” In The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music, edited by Joshua S. Walden. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 27-40.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Romero, Elena. “Sephardi Coplas: Characteristics and Bibliography.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 44, no. 1 (2011): 72–83.