Toledo is a magical place at just about any time. But after the tourist busses leave for the day, and the throngs depart, you can really let your imagination take flight. If you’re lucky, you’ll have entire streets virtually to yourself. And it is a delight to get yourself thoroughly lost in the narrow lanes and twisting alleys, as the sunset turns the stone walls golden-red. It’s easy to be transported to far-off times.
I had been blissfully lost for a good while by the time I began making it back to my Airbnb near the central cathedral. Walking up stone steps in yet another perfect alley, I came across the awning of a bookseller. And there, in front, was a young woman in garb from another age, playing a hurdy-gurdy and, with a pure soprano, singing what a small sign in Spanish and English announced were centuries old Sephardic songs from before the expulsion.
She sang beautifully.
And in that moment, the hypnotic drone of the instrument together with her clear voice had a mesmerizing effect. It evoked everything that Sephardic song should: It was haunting. It was yearning. It was ancient, handed down across the ages. For this setting it felt just right.
It’s a pity that it was almost entirely wrong.
The “medieval” songs she sang were, at oldest, from the late nineteenth century, though most were from the early twentieth century. None were from Toledo, and some were not even originally Sephardic; they were popular songs of the day from places like Turkey that were “Ladino-ized” by the singers who sang them. And beautiful (and fitting!) as the hurdy-gurdy is accompanying the melodies, these songs were typically sung unaccompanied.
This singer wove a spell, especially in that setting. That it belonged more to Harry Potter’s world and less to reality did not make it any less captivating. Yet despite being a good musician, she bought into many of the myths surrounding Ladino song.
Just how and why we arrive at such a romanticized place is topic for a different place. Suffice it to say that Ladino traditions are not unique in being distorted to the point where culture-bearers themselves can hardly measure up to outsiders’ expectations of what they should be. In the USA one of the most cutting examples of the ways this plays out is in white culture’s perception of Native Americans. Listen to writers like Thomas King or Sherman Alexie for poignant perspectives on this.
For most of its existence, Ladino song was a true, aural, folk tradition. This means that individual singers often changed melodies to suite their aesthetics and altered lyrics to bring stories more in-line with their values and perspectives. As singers were influenced by popular trends, the melodies they sang likewise changed in ways both subtle and not. Moreoever, these melodies where not written until the early twentieth century. We have little way of knowing the tunes, ornamentation, and inflections used before these songs were documented.
And yet, it is also true that there are lyrics to certain Ladino songs, especially the ballads, that indeed are centuries-old. We know because these were written, though we don’t know how they were sung.
And it is here that I’d like to dive into the next track from The Forgotten Kingdom because it belongs to this category. While the music may be new, this legend truly is ancient.
Hermanas Reina Y Cautiva (the song goes by other names too) was a popular tale in Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities of the day. After the expulsion, this ballad seems to have been lost in the Muslim and Christian communities, preserved in the diaspora by the Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire. This is the legend of Queen Xerifa, of the kingdom of Almeria. There are variations on the tale but the general gist is, basically, that a count is murdered and his wife brought to the queen as a slave. The queen overhears this captive servant singing a song from her distant home and this triggers a long-buried memory: it turns out the queen herself was brought from these foreign lands. The two forge a friendship.
In some versions the queen turns out to be the sister of the captive (she recognizes a distinct birthmark). In other versions the two are pregnant, and they swap children. And in others the queen and captive flee the kingdom together, returning to their faroff country.
- Listen to a field recording of Hermanas Reina Y Cautiva by Rivka Benshimol from Tangier, Morocco recorded in 1980 by Pimienta Gladys in Bat Yam, Israel.
I’ve written a bit about the tension in reinterpreting traditional material in my previous post, and this becomes relevant here. Just listen to the first few seconds of the field recording against our arrangement and it’s obvious that we’re stepping far afield of tradition.
This is one of the first arrangements of Ladino song that I made. Back then, I didn’t have easy access to field recordings and, in this case, I heard other artists’ interpretations of the song before I heard field recordings of culture-bearers. In particular, Jordi Savall's recordings left an impression. Stepping away from traditional contexts and performance practice, I became fascinated with a question I felt this song could be taken to ask, one is vital for our times: What would bring someone of the highest social class - a queen, a member of the one percent - to walk away from an entire kingdom, determining that justice lies in becoming an equal with the person that once was her slave?
Add to this my love of epic tales and an inclination to want to set this story in something that felt like Middle Earth, and you get this arrangement, co-written with longtime ensemble member Andy Bergman. Ours is an excerpt of the much longer romanza. We open with a scene in the great hall of the court of Xerifa of Almeria, to which soldiers return bearing the the kidnapped noblewoman-turned-slave before their queen.
I hope you’ll enjoy.