Julia Madeson & Aljashu – Sephardic music concert before Hanuka

10 12 2009

Vocalist Julia Madeson sang Sephardic Jewish songs in Ladino at the Berklee College of Music on December 10, 2009.  The concert “Hanuka – A Celebration of Light” was dedicated to the late Judy Frankel and her legacy to Sephardic music.

Welcoming an audience of about forty to The Loft, Madeson promised mint tea, medjool dates, almonds, and pistachios following the concert.  Aljashu – a Turkish-Jewish dessert of matzoh, dried fruit, nuts, and honey – served as a metaphor for the sweetness of Sephardic musical tradition continuing after a history of exodus from Spain.  Ladino language and songs traveled with Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

“Take this affliction and do with it what we must.  We want to make it sweet,” said Madeson.

Relocating to the Ottoman Empire in places such as Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey, musicians picked up new instruments and melodies.  String instruments such as the Turkish oud, cumbus, and fretted and fretless guitars, and Spanish percussion instruments such as the cajon, dumbek, riq, and zils opened the sounds.

Performing modal infused melodies on these instruments, the musicians included Tev Stevig on guitar and oud, Brian O’Neill on percussion, Sabi Saltiel on guitar, and students Cagri Erdem on guitar, Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud, and Jean-Pierre D’Alencon on guitar.  Sarah-Jane Pugh joined as guest vocalist.

The concert began with Jewish prayer blessings.  Singing “Avram Avinu” (Abraham Our Father) about the birth of Abraham and “Bendigamos” (Let Us Bless), Madeson reached for spiritual heights to the strumming of guitar.

The song “En la mar” (In the sea) moved the concert theme of faith to that of love, life, and dreams.  Madeson wore a purple shawl with flower prints and sparkling tassels expressly for this song.

“So now we are going to move from the most sacred to the most profane,” said Madeson.

The guitarists pushed a quietly passionate melody as other musicians softly clapped and tapped frame drums. Those who could not resist the pulse nodded their heads and tapped their feet.

As a setting sun cast golden rays and purple shadows on Boylston Street around 4:30 pm, Madeson announced, “now we are going to do lullabies for you.”

The calm lullabies “Durme hermoza donzella” (Sleep beautiful darling) and “Durme hermozo hijico” (Sleep beautiful son) were convincing.  Repetitions of “durme, durme” (sleep, sleep) relaxed some enough to yawn.  Jingles and twangs of percussion instruments recalled a child’s rattle.

But before anyone could be lulled into a siesta, Madeson sang “El Sueno de la Hija a del Rey de Francia” (The Dream of the Daughter of the King of France). The lyrics tell the story of one of three daughters who “almost gets in trouble for falling asleep while embroidering.” When the daughter tells her mother that she had a good dream, the mother foretells her receiving good fortune and becoming queen.

Two modern compositions “Hanuka” and “Shabat” by Judy Frankel heralded the festival of lights.  This year Hanuka begins on Friday December 11, 2009.

“Okay, raise your hand if you didn’t get enough chocolate,” said Madeson, tossing gelt, chocolate coins, into the crowd.

This year Jewish women will light both the menorah and Shabbat candles. Performing “Shabat” as a duet Madeson and Sarah-Jane Pugh, they passed one musical tradition from one generation to the next.  Gazing into each other’s eyes, they paralleled a mother sharing the songs she knows with her daughter.

As Madeson sang the lyrics, Pugh hummed along.  Humming indicated she was “starting to catch, understand the ritual,” said Madeson.  Harmonizing in unison, “now we’re in perfect agreement as how to celebrate Shabbat.”

The concert took the atmosphere of a family party with Sabi Sattiel’s performance of “Los Bilbilikos” (The Nightingales).  In the Sephardic style of his hometown Izmir, Turkey, Sattiel created open sounds with few notes.  Harmonic minors played with a more Turkish scale – tuning F sharp closer to F half sharp – gave a darker mood to the sad song.

As a sing-along finale, Madeson performed Yasmin Levy’s “Adio Kerida” (Farewell Beloved), leaving listeners humming.

The concert moved attending relatives of Judy Frankel.  David Buckman, Frankel’s cousin, and his wife praised the musicians and vocalists for faithfully backing up the melodies and words.

“Judy was known for her very, very clear enunciation, pronunciation, and dedication to the original intent of the music,” said Mr. Buckman.  “I was in tears, and my wife tried to stop me from singing out loud.”

Rachel Buckman, Judy Frankel’s aunt, recalled how Frankel collected and composed the songs. This performance imparted knowledge of relatively unknown Sephardic music to a curious crowd.

“I think that Judy in collecting this music saved it.  Judy was very, very thorough in what she did,” said Rachel Buckman. “I loved the lullaby, and I loved this last song that we all sang.”

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