The term Sephardic comes from the reference in the biblical book of Obadiah to "the land of Sepharad." It is now used to refer to the Spanish Jews expelled in 1492, and to their descendents today. During the centuries that followed the Inquisition, the exiled Spanish Jews migrated and formed communities across Europe, the Near and Middle East, and North Africa, their language remaining Ladino, the unique form of Judeo-Spanish that they had spoken in Spain.

The songs of these Jews, as varied as the places where they made their homes in exile, have been the passion of the four-person musical ensemble Voice of the Turtle for the past 21 years. Only one member of the group actually has a Sephardic background, and in fact they discovered the music by chance, when they were all members of a Renaissance music ensemble and a fellow member brought in a Sephardic song to play. This event sent the group's founder, Judith Wachs, an Ashkenazic Jew whose father sang cantorial repertoire and who has many cantors in the family, searching through several archives to learn more about the music.

She began collecting examples of Sephardic songs and founded Voice of the Turtle with Lisle Kulbach, and then invited Derek Burrows and Jay Rosenberg to join them. All four members are classically trained musicians. The group's fascination with these musical traditions has continued to feed their artistic lives ever since. "It's a musical and aesthetic passion, for us," explains Judith. The group has built a repertoire of Sephardic songs from medieval times to the present, from Morocco to the Balkans to Jerusalem, "each of which," says Judith, "we have arranged and recreated to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences."

Creating a Sephardic repertoire is not only an artistic challenge for the group, but a committed undertaking of careful study and preservation. Today, with the globalization of culture and because of the ravages of the Holocaust, Sephardic musical traditions are in danger of disappearing. Judith explains, "Generally, the children and grandchildren of Sephardim are singing rock-n-roll or jazz, and it takes someone either from out of the community, or the rare person who appreciates what his parents and grandparents had to preserve the tradition."

Regarding the research and knowledge involved in the group's work, she explains, "Just as someone specializes in Bach or in Chilean music out of love for it, so must one study and immerse oneself in this musical tradition in order to feel comfortable with and respectful of it, to feel that one is adding to it or keeping it alive in some way by inspiring others to keep it alive." She adds that this is the reason the group has not yet ventured to add other kinds of Jewish music to their repertoire.

To create their music, the group works from live recordings made at celebrations in contemporary Sephardic communities around the world. "When you work with a tradition that is not your own you have to research everything you can — the language, and who would sing a particular song and under what circumstances," says Judith. These recordings come mostly from an archive compiled by musicologists at the Jewish Music Research Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the past thirty years. But the group also takes recording equipment and video cameras out 'into the field,' that is into Sephardic communities themselves, or makes recordings of people who come to them at concerts. The oral tradition preserved in these recordings can reach back several hundred years, "Most of the time they come from elderly people aged 60-90 and even older, and they are remembering songs from their grandparents, so it goes several generations back."

After obtaining the recordings, often the next step is compiling what is sometimes several pieces together to get a song, "Often we'll have a recording of someone who is barely able to carry a tune, and we'll get the words from that version. And then there's someone from the same community who can sing a tune but doesn't know the words, and then you kind of verify from one to the other." Since what the group gets from the recordings is usually just people singing with no instrumental accompaniment, they must then arrange the music-by selecting instruments and composing the musical arrangement using voice and instruments. The variety and creativity of these arrangements is Voice of the Turtle's signature strength.

Because Sephardic communities have been influenced by so many different cultures, there is an incredible variety of both music styles and of instruments. Sometimes the group relies on the people who sing the songs in the recordings know which instruments were traditionally used, while at other times they depend upon research that has been done on the areas where the songs were collected. Judith explains the complex case of Bulgarian Sephardic songs: "In Turkey, the musicians who played classical Turkish music at the highest level were all Jewish. We also know that Turkish orchestras played at Bulgarian Jewish weddings, and that would be a combination of instruments that we know­­an 'ud, a kamanja, and a saz or baglama." In addition to more contemporary instruments, the group plays a variety of exotic medieval and renaissance instruments, in order to reflect the historical derivation of the songs.

The final, and perhaps the most crucial, element in the process is combining this mastery of tradition with musical and artistic skill. "We take the music and learn it so it becomes part of us and then evolve an orchestration, which is basically a composition. The challenge for anyone who is working on oral traditions is to not obliterate it but to incorporate it and be inspired by it so that the essence of it is still clearly felt," explains Judith. The group excels at this delicate process: "I think one of the reasons the four of us have continued to work so well together is that our musical tastes agree. It's not a formula that we have, it's just an artistic imperative on which, luckily, we all agree."



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