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"Songs of the night and loneliness"
Jana Lewitová, Vladimír Merta

Sefardské písně 

F10077   [8595017407727]   released 12/1996

play all Sephardic Inpiration - Lewitová, Merta 71:28
Yo en prizion, tu en las flores 4:39
Una matica de ruda 3:39
Casada con un viejo 6:00
Morenica 3:42
Hija mia mi querida 3:17
Noches, noches 10:17
Puncha, puncha 2:50
Lásko má 5:08
Triste está el Rey David 4:24
Entre las huertas paseando 5:49
Esta noche 9:01
Yo me n´amorí d´un aire 2:18
Nani, nani 4:53
Durmite 4:22

All folksongs arranged by Vladimir Merta, except (8) composed and arranged by Vladimir Merta (text by Federico Garcia Lorca)  

Jana Lewitová - vocal, percussion
Vladimír Merta - vocal, guitars, lute, flute, percussion

Aleš Rypan - Baroque oboe
Radovan Vašina - cornetto
Michal Kostiuk - clarinet
Jan Krejča - theorbo
Petr Hejný - viola da gamba
Jaroslav Kořán - percussion
Pavel Plánka - percussion

There can hardly be a more forsaken corner of the musical scene. The disdained Jewish minority has an even smaller minority in its midst. The music of the Ashkenazim is closer to the Slav musical sensibility, and today only the Spanish Synagogue reminds us of the once rich cultural life of the Sephardic Jews. Their songs sound exotic in our ears, music which is vibrant with emotion, profoundly personal: it is not sentimental, a proud sigh rather than a lament. To reach down to the roots of this music is almost an archaeological venture, a hard pull against the tide of the centuries. Musicians and listeners journey together, from one time zone to another, only to find - paradoxically - their own selves. Songs of a small minority scattered through the world have come to rest in the hearts of modern man, at the end of our millennium, weighed down as he is with problems of his own. We retrace the paths followed by those little bands of Sephardim across Europe and the Near East as they sought in vain for a place to settle. Leaving behind the security of Spanish courts where they served as respected advisers, in financial dealings, as physicians and philosophers, they plumbed the depths of despair common to all refugees. This is the source of the dramatic intensity of their songs, the two levels on which they move: sublime Renaissance melodies, falling to wailing and lamentation. The higher and the lower come together, as indeed they have done throughout the history of the People of the Book. What remains to these lonely fleeing bands but their songs?
     The words of the ballads reveal the sufferings of their creators, whose names have disappeared in anonymity, but whose experiences live on. We hear their personal echo in the desperate predicament of women loved and deserted, in the prisoner`s lament - so close to the emotions of the refugees the hectic end of our millennium has scattered over the earth.
     The songs sprang from the wealth of folk song tradition, and were accompanied by the lute or its Arab predecessor the oud, the vihuela, the tabor drum or the tambourine, or were simply heard as a voice in the night. Although they show the influence of contemporary secular music, these are deeply spiritual songs. The recordings which exist have a very varied charm, the monodic melodies harmonizing, as when they originated, with the sensitive musical tradition in which the Sephardic community found itself. Although it lacked theoretical treatises, Jewish music exercised a great influence on Christian music. In his basic work on Jewish music Abraham Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938) traced the profound influence of synagogue singing on Ambrosian and Gregorian chants. Religious songs were performed by a choir of at least twelve temple singers, of the tribe of Levi. Even in biblical times, however, folk music was a gentler influence on the music of the Temple.
     In France, Egypt or Palestine, and even in Amsterdam, the Sephardim changed the Babylonian Pentateuchal mode of two tetrachords linked by a whole tone (a-f-g-a- + b-c-d-e) to the more major f-g-a flat-b-c-d-e-f. (The Lydian tones to be heard in Moravian folksongs.) The prophetic mode (d-e-f-g + a-b-c-d) established itself in most Jewish folksongs, being known as "pouring out one`s soul", expressing the sad and the joyous side of life. To us in the West, accustomed to the Anglo-Saxon folk tradition, these songs sound melancholy, "minor", but the Jews expressed their happiness, too, in sorrowful melodies. The Job mode (tetrachord f-g-a-b) known in the oriental tradition as "Rehaw" (the West), exerted an influence on the forces of evil and those of good. For the Jews music had its place between Heaven and earth: the singer was not only there to amuse, but to reveal to the community the deeper, mystic meaning of each human life in its narrow bounds. Semitic melodies are based on twelve tetrachord modes, and the composer was free only to ornament and to combine.Singers had no difficulty with (to us) unusual discordant melodic lines. The Yemenite tradition forbade the making of musical instruments; instead, a polyrhythmic accompaniment was provided by improvising on whatever material was to hand. The recordings made by Susan Weich-Shahak in the field in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans present a capella narrative songs: they express the mood of the moment, not bound by a written version or by orthodox demands for authenticity. Oral tradition passing on melodies from one place to another is the most reliable source for the record.
     Alberto Hemsi, a native of Cassaba, a small village in Anatolia, was used to hearing his mother singing Sephardic songs. While he was studying in Milan he tried to harmonize some of them, and his professor pointed out the precious authentic and unspoiled nature of the melodies, calling for a very different accompaniment than the neo-romantic fashion of the time. From 1920 onwards Hemsi set about systematically noting not only the melodic line of the songs, the numbers of musicians involved, the embellishments, but their close links with everyday life and with the great festivals. Chazzanim (synagogue cantors and teachers of singing) as well as folk singers in the cafés and clubs of Rhodes and Salonica were masters of the art. In a single night they all disappeared for ever ... After the war Hemsi continued his work, clearing away the accumulation of period taste, the plagiarisms, comparing textual and musical variants to reach the original form of each song. He thus embodied the approach of the critic, the field worker, the collector and the critical editor all in one. He guarded his life`s work jealously, propagating and completing it systematically all the time, and strictly forbidding any interpolations, adjustments, or simplifications. He indicated the notation: the free rhythm of the romances, and of the narrative oraciones.the variations and improvisations integral to the endechas, the modal contours gradually descending and embellisched towards the tonic. Hemsi defined the natural manner in singing, bound up with the rhythm of colloquial speech; he traced the relation of this music to the oriental modes in Turkish music and its similarity to the Andalusian canto chondo, defended by M. de Falla and passionately sung by F. G. Lorca. Hemsi was familiar with the ethnomusical studies of Bela Bartok, and in Prague met Alois Hába and appreciated the potentialities of quarter-tone music. Hába took a prominent part in the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932. Hemsi dedicated his creative talent to the preservation of a dying but unique tradition, but his views were not always accepted. The critical edition of his Cancionero Sefardi (1995) is a valuable guide and inspiration on our own path to buried roots.
     How should we accompany these precise reconstructions of the melody, on contemporary instruments with their chromatic tuning and modern conception of dramatic intensity? How can we catch the ear of the listener in Central Europe, accustomed to a kitschy lyrical interpretation of folksongs heard hundreds of times? The answer lies in the interpretation of the melody and in its harmonic treatment. The traditional songs noted down by Hemsi, like the etnographically faithful recordings made in the field, are unaccompanied. In view of the respect felt by the Jews for tradition and the written word, we can assume that the melodies are historically authentic. What was the accompaniment like? It undoubtedly varied according to the instruments the Sephardim adopted from the peoples among whom they settled. Prague, too, felt the inspiration of this music, as the Sephardim passed through on their way further east or south. There were certainly Spanish musicians at the court of Rudolph II, but which exotic instruments they brought with them, and how they were played, remains a mystery. The only notation known at the time was the lute tablature, and the player accompanying the songs improvised in the spirit of Renaissance music. Like Hemsi, we have made a collection of possible versions and accompaniments, in our search for the roots of our own feeling for the songs. The only safe points of reference were the musical line of the melody, respect for logic in the phrasing, and flowing rhythm without regular bar-lines (which were unknown in early music) All the rest is what we mean by Sephardic inspiration: striking the guitar strings with a bow, drum beats, the Jew`s harp, ethnic pipes, Syrian and Indian percussion instruments, the Japanese shamisen ... We have only one aim: to let the audience share in our adventurous journey through time and place, seeking knowledge which can never be exhausted.
     We have drawn on the many scholarly interpretations of medieval songs (the virelai, songs of the trouveres, cantigas, songs of Marian miracles) and on to the imagination of modern alternative music, art rock (Dead Can Dance). Those who play with us not only bring their instruments, their skills and ideas for improvisation, but their fascination and enchantment: they too range from scholarly interpretation of early music to the amiance of modern improvisation - music for the moment. When you subject our work to criticism, leave the melody out of your consideration - it is the only element that is absolutely innocent, being authentic (unless we fall into utter nihilism). All the rest is a step in the dark, a mere suggestion, the echo of a mysterious call from far away, from long ago, footsteps and sighs half-heard, tears of sadness and of joy. Timid at times, at others wildly passionate, but most often sad.
     This was the state of mind at the height of the Renaissance, a mood which set the singer and the accompanist free of the bonds of tradition. Today, when a professional singer and a song-writer guitarist have come together at the same startingpoint, it may mean more than tentative groping in the darkness of the digital age, which arrays an infinite chain of numbers between the live music and the live listener, not, these days, the magical numbers of the kabbalah, but numbers to be manipulated still further. Our journey back in time is not the search for roots so popular today, the excuse for new "holy wars". Let us listen to music as the cure for intolerance - today songs have only this to offer. And the listener soon becomes a singer - even if only under your breath, you have taken the first step. Let us seek together the lost dream of Spain, in the words of one of the songs from Sarajevo, Suenos d´Espana. We are only a tiny link in the chain that binds earth to Heaven. We, you, they... we, you... they... We play and listen, that this eternal conversation should never be stilled for ever.

Vladimír Merta

Another recordings by Jana Lewitová & Vladimír Merta:

Solo albums by Jana Lewitová:

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