Worlds of Jewish Music: Listening Guide

Last week, we discussed objects of material culture, and we even learned how to handle them in a museum context, thanks to Julie Franklin, MA, Registrar of The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley.

I took some video (including slow-mo) of students learning how pick up a (perhaps rare and precious) book…

…and how to carry it across a room:

This week and the next (Weeks 4 & 5 in our Syllabus), we will be working on musical (and sound) objects, and listen to two audio anthologies representing Jewish musical traditions in the global diaspora.

Please note that all tracks are available on UC Berkeley’s bCourses website. Some are also available online at the link below. (My recommendation is to use bCourses).

1) Musical Traditions in Israel: Treasures of the National Sound Archives (available on bCourses and online)

This is a compilation of ethnomusicological field recordings highlighting the collection of the National Sound Archives (NSA), an institution established in 1964 at the National Library of Israel (then known as the Jewish National and University Library; read more here).

The NSA house hundreds of thousands of recorded items, documenting a host of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other musical traditions represented in modern Israel, as well as Jewish musical traditions across the global diaspora.

This compilation (originally issued on audio cassette, then on CD, and now also available online) constitutes a veritable “audio tour” of both Jewish and Israeli sounds, presenting an intensely diverse traditional musical landscape through the performances of original culture bearers (also referred to as informants in the context of “ethnomusicology,” i.e., the study of music performance in its cultural and traditional context).

Most of the recordings (not all) featured in the compilation were collected in Israel. Some were collected by Israeli researchers who conducted their fieldwork abroad.

The CD booklet (available on bCourses) gives specific details about the following traits of each individual recording, so please focus on them:

Title or incipit (beginning words of a song) of the piece recorded
Typology and occasion of the performance (i.e., vocal, instrumental, for the liturgy, for weddings, etc.)
Informants’ names and other biographical information
• Name of the researcher/s who conducted the fieldwork, date and place of recording
• NSA Call number

a) Tracks 4, 5 and 6 highlight the role of music in the transmission of traditional lore in Judaism (the confluence of texts and sounds, or the sounding of texts): from father to son, from teacher to pupils, as well as in individual study.

b) Tracks 2, 3, 8, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 22 offer the diverse sounds of liturgical music from the synagogue traditions of Europe, Asia and Africa. They represent Ashkenazi (originally from central and eastern Europe), and Sephardic (originally from the Iberian peninsula) musical traditions, along with those of the Jews from the Islamic world (at times called mizrachi, or “oriental” Jews, in Israeli Hebrew).

c) Tracks 1, 7 and 23 are Jewish wedding tunes (from Morocco, Yemen and Eastern Europe), which represent a variety of “para-liturgical” traditions (the term is described in this week’s reading assignment)

d) The remaining tracks (9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 19) represent some of the most important non-Jewish musical traditions that are rooted in Israel (Bedouin, Greek-Orthodox, Palestinian-Arab, and Samaritan).

While listening to these tracks (choose at least one from groups a, b, and c), you may want to focus on different aspects:

1. Soundscape: what kind of musical world (European, Asian, African, etc.) and environment (indoor, outdoor, communal, or private spaces, for example) does the music represent?
2. Performance style: solo or group singing, instrumental accompaniment, etc.
3. Language: Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, a Jewish language (Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, etc.), other languages, or combinations thereof (one song may contain more than one language, of course).
4. Context: What occasion is the music destined to? Who is/was the audience? Why was it recorded? (Try to answer such questions).

It may well be that the only common characteristic to all these musical examples is that they are all transmitted by oral tradition.

In terms of sound, they indeed are extremely diverse…

Who would want to define this mosaic of diverse sounds as “Jewish Music”?

(Ideas about these issues are found in this week’s readings: Grove Dictionary of Music Online, “Jewish Music”).

 

2) Titgadal wetitqadash betokh Yerushalaim | Jerusalem in Hebrew Prayer and Song (available on bCourses)

As we will discuss in class, liturgical sounds introduce us into one of the most intimate aspects of Jewish culture, in which text and music, material and spiritual cultures, tradition and innovation, Jewish and non-Jewish dimensions, seamlessly coexist.

Jewish liturgy takes place every day, and thus expresses the experience of everyday life, just like the many objects of material culture that we have examined in the weeks past.

And at the same time, Jewish liturgy also voices the most complex aspects of religious life, thus addressing an intricate texture of literary traditions (first and foremost, the Hebrew Bible), of spiritual yearning, and of cultural creativity and aesthetic expressions.

Finally, liturgy is a performance, in which music is central. In its performative aspects, liturgy and its music reflect a variety of social dynamics, ranging from inter-generational conflicts to gender relations, to politics and, as we will see in focusing on nocturnal rituals, intercultural exchange.

This compilation, which is based on a concert program presented in Berlin, Germany, in 1995, focuses entirely on liturgical and para-liturgical songs (refer to Grove, “Jewish Music” III:1 to fully assess the importance of these terms) of various Jewish musical traditions as they are presented by traditional culture bearers (rather than re-created by artists). Make sure to also refer to the CD notes to learn about each track and the ideas that informed the concert program (curated by Edwin Seroussi, and available via bCourses).

While listening, focus on two aspects:

  • Diversity of sound: once again, very diverse worlds of sounds are brought together as part of one culture (aka, “Jewish (musical) culture);
  • Unity of (theological) message: each selection expresses the two ­thousand year longing for Jerusalem and the return to the land of Israel, as represented in Jewish liturgical texts.

Would you say that these two aspects were actually reconciled in the concert program documented in the compilation? Probably not in terms of sounds: the traditions represented in the concert are indeed very different from one another.

And yet, perhaps,  such a  relation can be only understood within the comprehensive notion of “Jewish music” summarized in the assigned sections of the Grove article on this topic: thus, as a host of diverse cultures with distinctively similar  practices (in textual, material social, and political terms) across the span of a diasporic landscape.

In listening to this compilation, please make sure to focus on the following tracks:

1. Shofar blowing: this is the sound of the only Biblical musical instrument that remains in Jewish liturgy

5. Lekha dodi: a liturgical poem for the Sabbath liturgy, text by Kabbalist scholar Sh. Alkabetz (melody from the Turkish tradition)

12. Arim al shefayim koli: a Moroccan kinah (Hebrew for dirge), part of the vast repertoire of liturgical poems sung on the 9th of Av (the liturgical commemoration of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, and later by the Romans in the 1st century CE)

13. Yerushalaim ir mehulalah – Hohil yom yom eshtahe: Moroccan song medley praising Jerusalem and the city of Tiberias

15. Mimekomkha malkenu tofi’a: Ashkenazi prayer for the return of God’s rule over Zion and Jerusalem (a line from this prayer gives  the Hebrew  title  to  the CD:  titgadal wetitqadash bethokh yerushalayim, or “May You be exalted and sanctified within Jerusalem”)

19.  Im nin‘alu:  a Hebrew poem by Sh.  Shabazi from  the Yemenite  tradition of  sacred poetry  (Diwan),  which was popularized as a “dance hit” in the 1980s by Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza as follows (you may want to listen to her other subsequent versions of this song, easily found on YouTube):

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One Passover Song, Many (Musical) Cultures

Check out this link from the Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel (the world largest repository of Jewish musical recordings):

http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/music/passover/index.html

Here you can find many renditions (12, to be exact) of the enumerative Passover song, Echad mi yode’a (Who Knows One?).

How many (musical) cultures can you detect with just one example? (And how many languages?)