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The Songs of a Wandering People
The Songs of a Wandering People

Lullabies From Around the World

By Matthew Oshinsky
Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.

When the joint Catholic monarchs of Spain, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, ordered the expulsion of Jews from Spain on March 31, 1492, they probably wouldnt have cared to know that they were helping to create one of the most remarkable musical traditions the world has ever known. Of course, the Jews being forced from their homes after centuries of peaceful coexistence and artistic collaboration with the Muslims of Spain wouldnt have found much comfort in this development, either. But more than 500 years later, we can celebrate the incredible cultural diversity and influence that has become a vital attribute of a continually persecuted wandering people.

A recently released collection of childrens music, Songs From the Garden of Eden, shines a warm light on this unique history of inspiration and adaptation. It also makes a splendid teaching tool for parents interested in showing their children that Jewish folk music doesnt always involve Debbie Friedman. The songs it includes mostly lullabies, nursery rhymes, and other verses of folklore and ritual are alternately sung in Hebrew, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish and Arabic, and dig through Jewish traditions from Asia to Africa to the whole of Europe. As Songs demonstrates, these disparate civilizations share at least one significant bond: They all, at some point, have inspired and been inspired by the culture of Judaism.

Of course, not all of the 28 songs found on this collection, which was released by the French-Canadian label The Secret Mountain (complete with a beautiful book of illustrations and annotations of each song) derive from the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition. Some, like the albums opener, Bibhilou, are ancient Hebrew hymns linked to liturgical rites and the hardships of slavery in Egypt. Others, like Erev shel Shoshanim, were penned by contemporary Israeli poets and childrens authors (in this case, Moshe Dor), and will likely sound familiar to any child who has spent even a day in a Western Hebrew school.

But the gems to be mined from Songs From the Garden of Eden are those that will sound alien to the Western ear, Sephardic and Ashkenazic alike. They hail from a number of nations, including Spain, Morocco, Turkey and Poland, and are the bittersweet fruits of an enduring tree that was constantly uprooted and replanted around the globe, following the Iberian expulsion. The second song on the album, the Bulgarian chant Alevanta Sultanatchi, features an irregular nine-beat rhythm, a buoyant bass line and the rigorous vocal trills associated with Middle Eastern and West Asian music. The song is performed in Judeo-Spanish (which spread to the urban centers of the former Ottoman Empire, northern Morocco and Vienna, after the expulsion) and is set in the Balkan hammams (or baths), in which women gathered to wash their clothes and arrange marriages.
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