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Musical Worlds Within Worlds
Musical Worlds Within Worlds
March 2, 2012
— By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood for The Chicago Jewish News —
Artist recreates women’s songs from Morocco
Vanessa Paloma’s Jewish and musical journey has been a little more adventurous than most.
Physically, it has taken her from Atlanta to Colombia to Puerto Rico to Indiana to Casablanca, Morocco, where she now lives.
Musically, her journey has led her into the heart of a little-known Jewish women’s repertoire, a hidden treasure trove buried deep within an already obscure tradition.
Chicago audiences will have a chance to hear Paloma twice this month. On Saturday, March 17 she’ll appear at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston with a concert titled “At the Tip of Africa: Sephardic Music from Morocco.” On Sunday, March 18, she’ll appear at Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies in a program called “Intertwined Identities: Music of Northern Morocco’s Jews.” (See Arts Roundup for details of both programs.)
The Beth Emet concert will include wedding songs, ballads, synagogue chants and lullabies from the Judeo-Spanish community of northern Morocco, what Paloma calls “a small community within the larger Moroccan Jewish community.”
Those songs, she said in a phone conversation from her home in Casablanca, “are very specific to Morocco. One of the things I work on is the Judeo-Spanish presence in Morocco. It hasn’t been looked at very much by the general Jewish music people. Usually you think Ladino, you think Turkey, Greece. You don’t think Morocco.”
The language of the songs, she says, is “a very specific mix of Spanish, Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic. It really kind of shows the specificity of the Moroccan experience.”
Jews came to Morocco from Spain and Portugal as early as 1391, she says; others who stayed in those countries converted externally to Christianity, then centuries later, their descendants came to Morocco and reclaimed their Jewish identities.
“These songs contain traces that are kind of hidden and non-explicit. I’m trying to catch, observe and pass those on to audiences so they can understand these complex layers of history and identity through music,” she says.
Paloma came to her specialty in a roundabout way. “Three lifetimes ago,” she says with a laugh, she studied medieval Spanish music at Indiana University. “I was working with a professor who had gone to Morocco in the ’60s to research traditional Moroccan music,” she explains. “He told us to listen to records of the Moroccan medieval music.”
Originally she focused on a more well-known repertoire of Turkish and Greek songs in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language. Then she discovered similarities with traditional women’s songs from Spain and delved further into the research of the Moroccan repertoire, eventually applying for and receiving a Fulbright grant to study in Morocco.
It was a place to which she already felt a pull, she says, since a great-great-grandmother had lived in a city in the northern part of the country. “It was a more personal connection – searching and reconnecting to something,” she says.
She met her future husband, a Moroccan Jew, and decided to relocate to Casablanca when they married. The city, which is full of contrasts, has a rich Jewish community, she says: Her son goes to a Jewish nursery school and there are kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, synagogues, a Jewish tennis club and the only Jewish museum located in an Arab country.
It might not live up to its romantic image, though. “It’s a huge city, very polluted but very interesting, a place of migration into Europe and Africa,” Paloma says. “It’s like the portal to both worlds and there are all sorts of cultural influences that have stayed here. The people are very international.”
The music she studies, meanwhile, is what she calls a traditional women’s repertoire, and there is more to it than meets the eye.
“In the oral tradition, the women sing, and it has usually been looked at as a secular women’s tradition. But the research I’ve been doing has found that the stories look like they’re secular but the message they’re conveying has to do with issues of Jewish identity,” she says. “It’s the ‘women’s Torah’ – the way the women would transmit Jewish values to their daughters. The grandmothers and mothers would sing together and connect as women Jewishly, but in music that was in Spanish, not Hebrew.”
The importance of women in passing along Jewish traditions in the Sephardic world also came as a surprise, Paloma says.
“We’ve always thought these women’s voices were silent, that they weren’t really a part of the Jewish discourse,” she says. “But that was completely not the case. The Jewish discourse had elements of what we would see as secular but were not secular at all. These songs carry metaphors that are very symbolic and deep about transmission of how women maintain purity and spirituality within their families.”
The songs, she says, offer a look into l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. “It’s how they continue the line,” she says. “Embedded inside of many of these songs are ancient texts. You can find them in publications and manuscripts from 16th- and 17th-century Spain.”
In Morocco, she says, “what we know is that a complex Jewish identity exists in a country other than Europe or Israel. It is a very cosmopolitan Jewish experience in a non-Ashkenazi environment.”
In addition, she says, in the music she studies “there is the whole issue of the importance of women’s participation in the transmission of Jewish identity. Women were very active in that, even though it wasn’t a synagogue activity. It was more in the private home, family, women’s groups. That doesn’t mean it had less power.”
Paloma usually comes to the United States twice a year to perform. Incidentally, her music also carries a message: “There are different ways of participating in Jewish life and communities. Women were a fundamental part of Jewish life not just because they cooked and had babies. There was another part of cultural transmission.”
When she sings, “I want people to have the music move them, touch them in their own very personal internal ways, have the music move you just as if you were going to a concert of Mozart or Beethoven,” she says. “The texts and the music have a message to give. They are small gems of a distant world that is within us. Every single one of us carries it within us.”