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Judeo-Spanish repertoire

 Romancero, Coplas and Cancionero: Typology of the Judeo-Spanish repertoire

By Dr. Susana Weich-Shahak

​​​It is my purpose to present the three main genres of the Sephardic traditional repertoire, based exclusively on the oral tradition: Romancero, Coplas and Cancionero.
This is also an opportunity to rectify some incorrect notions about the terminology used in regard to this repertoire among performers and public: in many cases the term "romancero" is used by more or less professional interpreters to designate any Sephardic song that they perform, on stage or for recordings. Actually, only a small part of their repertoire, if present at all, are "romances" but rather (and often exclusively) love songs (and a few humoristic songs), belonging to the Sephardic Cancionero and most certainly not to the Romancero.
Jews started to leave Spain following the pogroms and forced conversions of 1391. As you well know, all the Spanish Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by the end of the 15th century and dispersed all around the Mediterranean Sea. In the East they were well received by the Turkish Sultan and built their communities in Turkey and in what later became the Balkan countries: Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, etc. Another part of the expelled Jews left Spain for Northern Africa, and there flourished their communities of Tetuan, Alcazarquivir, Tangier, and where later on, they came in contact with Spanish culture during the Spanish Protectorate of Northern Morocco. Therefore, this is also an opportunity to present not only the tradition of the Eastern Sephardim that is the most represented by professional singers of Ladino songs, but also from the rich musical tradition of the Moroccan Sephardim.
After many years in which the research on Sephardic tradition centered exclusively on the Romancero, and then mainly in its textual aspect, during the last decades the investigation has widened its scope to encompass the literary study of the two other genres: the Coplas repertoire and the Sephardic Cancionero. The musicological research has advanced on these subjects through intensive field work, recordings, analysis and interviews. My own fieldwork and research started in 1974 and all my collected songs are deposited and catalogued at the National Sound Archives in the NLI.
Definition of the three genres in the Sephardic repertoire is based on several parameters:
1. Textual structure, the versification and rhyme of the poem;
2. Musical structure, comprising the formal structure of the tune and the durational and pitch parameters (rhythm and melody);
3. Interrelation of textual and musical structures;
4. Thematic category of the text, considering also its placing in time, its historical connotation;
5. Linguistic aspects of the text, namely, the parameters of phonology, morphology, syntaxes and lexicon of the employed language;
6. Social function fulfilled in the life cycle, in the festive year cycle, etc.;
7. Musical practice, namely, the rendering or ways of performance, as solo or group, with or without instrumental accompaniment, men or women's repertoire.



​The Romancero

The term Romancero means a collection or corpus of romances, which are narrative poems with a well defined textual and musical structure in a unidirectional order of verses.


The romances may be defined as quite a conservative genre, cherishing the Medieval Spanish heritage known by the Jews before their expulsion, carried and preserved by them in their second Diaspora. It can not be denied that some romances were born in the Jewish settlements in Greece, Turkey, Morocco, etc., as has been thoroughly studied by Armistead in En torno al Romancero Sefardí: Hispanismo y balcanismo (5), but the main bulk of the romance-corpus can be clearly traced, by their texts, to 16th century sources, like the Cancionero de Baena, the Cancionero sin año, de Amberes. The music of Sephardic romances may be even traced to Spanish musical sources written in the early 16th century, namely, the polyphonic settings of romances in the Cancionero Musical de Palacio and the instrumental arrangements of romances made by Mudarra, Pisador and other vihuelistas.


As a literary form, the text of the romance consists of an undefined number of 16 syllable lines or verses, each one divided by a cesura into two isometric hemistiches of 8 syllables. The rhyme of all the verses, (obviously, all second hemistiches) is assonant and is maintained, at least originally, throughout the whole song.


The music divides this series of rhyming verses (that can indeed be quite long) into a strophic structure, in which one musical stanza is repeated, with slight variations, throughout the text. With very few exceptions, the musical stanzas have four musical phrases, and to such a tune are generally sung four hemistiches of the text. The formal structures most common in the Sephardic Romancero are ABCD and AABC.


The subject of the romance is a narrative poem in which a story is told. The characters involved are kings, queens, princesses and gallant knights, prisoners, and captives.

The romance’s subjects often relate to historical events in the Spanish Middle Ages, reflecting the wars between Christians and Moors, the long centuries of the war of the Reconquista. Many are the romances that relate the fate of prisoners captured by the Moors.

For instance: The reencounter of two sisters. One of then had been captured by the Moors and became a Moorish queen. At her request, her servants bring her a Christian slave, Conde Flores’ wife, killing the husband. Both the queen and the slave are pregnant and give birth on the same day: the queen has a baby girl and the slave has a boy. The midwives change the babies and the slave sings a song by which she is recognized by the queen as her own sister. 

La reina serifa mora (Two sisters, queen and captive)
Rina Benabu-Benarroch (Tangier, Morocco)
Holon, 31.1.1996 - NSA Y7951/10 
La reina Jerifa mora, la que mora en la Almería,
dice que tiene deseo de una cristiana cautiva.
Los moros, como lo oyeran, de repente se partían,
de ellos parten para Francia, de ellos para la Almería.
Hallaron al onde Flores, que a la condesa traía,
libro de oro en la su mano, adoraciones hacía,
pidiendo a Dios del cielo que la den hijo o hija
para heredarle sus bienes, que heredero no tenía.
Mataron al conde Flores y a la condesa traían,
se la llevan de presente a la reina de Almería.
- Tomís, señora, esta esclava, la esclava que vos querías,
que no es mora ni es cristiana, ni es dada a la malicia,
sino es condesa y marquesa, señora de gran valía.
La reina estaba preñada y la esclava estaba encinta;
quiso Dios y la fortuna: las dos paren en un día.
La esclava pariera un niño, la reina parió una niña.
Las negras de las comadres, para ganar su platica,
dieron el niño a la reina y a la esclava dan la niña.
Un día estaba la esclava con la niña en la cocina,
con lágrimas de sus ojos lavó la cara a la niña.
- Ay, mi niña de mi alma, ay, mi niña de mi vida,
qui‚n te me diera en mi tierra, en mis tierras de Almería:
te nombrara Blancaflor, nombre de una hermana mía
que la cautivaron moros día de Pascua Florida
La reina la estaba oyendo desde su salita arriba.
-En qué conoces a tu hermana, a esa hermana tan querida?-
- Por un lunar que ella tiene debajo de la tetilla.
Y ahí se conocieron las dos hermanas queridas,
y otro día en la mañana se fueron para Almería.​

​The following example, the romance about the daughter’s dream does not maintain a steady rhyme; according to Samuel Armistead it is probably adapted from the local Greek folk tradition. The verses have 12 syllables divided into two hemistiches of six syllables each, hence the name “hexasyllabic romance”. The text presents a scene in which the queen and her three daughters are sewing and embroidering, as befits their class, but the youngest daughter falls asleep, and then describes her dream: she dreamt of the moon at her door, the star at her window, and a golden fountain with three birds. And her mother explains the dream as bearing good omens for her forthcoming marriage: the moon is her mother in law, the star is her sister in law, the birds are her brothers in law and the golden fountain is her groom, the king's son. 
La reina de Francia (The daughter’s dream)
Malka Dayan-Mayish (Izmir, Turkey) –
Yahud, 3.1.2010 - NSA Y7940/16
El rey de la Francia tres hijas tenía,
la chica labraba, durmirse quería.
La madre que la vía aharvarla quería.
- No m'aharves, mi madre, m'asoñí un esueño
bien y alegría y todo bueno, mi hija.
M'aparí a la puerta, vide la luna 'ntera,
m'aparí a la ventana, vide la strella Diana,
m'aparí al pozo, vide un pinar de oro
con tres pajaricos pic ndolo el oro.
- La luna entera, la mujer del rey, tu suegra,
la strella Diana, la hija del rey, tu cuñada,
y el pinar de oro, el hijo del rey, tu novio,
los tres pajaricos son tus tres cuñadicos.

​As we have seen, the romances are performed by women, they are sung solo with no instrumental accompaniment and in many cases with richly ornamented melodic lines. The main function of the romances is that of a lullaby, used to sing the baby to sleep while the elder brothers and sisters listened and thus learned the songs.
Only a few romances have a function among the songs related to the wedding. Such is our next example, which fulfills a very special social function in Saloniki: it belongs to the corpus of wedding songs, performed by the women of the bride's family, friends and neighbors, when they gather on what is known as "dí a del lavado de lana" [washing the wool used to fill the mattresses and pillows for the new couple].
This romance is thematically catalogued under the theme of the faithful wife, and its title in Armistead's Catalogue is "La vuelta del marido "(The husband's return), a well known medieval subject: the faithful wife is put to the test by her husband, who has just returned from the wars. The test is set in a scenario in which she is washing, when a knight - her own husband, whom she does not recognize after many years of absence - tries to convince her that her husband is dead and that she should marry him, an offer she refuses, thus proving her fidelity. The relevance of the two themes: faithful wife + washing, may account for the function of this romance (9).
The music of this example shows Eastern influences: the melody is very ornamented, with wide melismas, especially at the end of the musical phrases. The scalar organization is in maqam Husseyni, with a Bayati lower pentachord (a lowered IInd degree), a Kurd tetrachord on the Vth degree and a descent to the subtonic at the end of the third phrase. Despite these Turkish-Arabic musical features, in our comparative study of the music of the Sephardic romances and those of Spanish sources from the XV - XVIth centuries, similarities in melodic contour ("family resemblances") have been found with the upper voices of three polyphonic romances from the Cancionero Musical de Palacio, namely, "Alburquerque, Albuerquerque", "De la vida deste mundo" and "Tiempo es el escudero" ; with Enriquez de Valderr bano's "Ya cavalga Calaynos", for voice and vihuela, in Silva de Sirenas; and with Palero /Pisaro instrumental setting of "Mira, Nero de Tarpeya", in Venegas de Henestrosa Libro de cifra nueva.
In the actual performance of some romances, as in the Selanikli example presented here, we may observe a concatenation: the last two hemistiches sung in the second half of the musical stanza (the last two musical phrases) are repeated at the beginning of the new musical stanza, with the melody corresponding to the first two musical phrases.
EX. 3:
Lavaba la blanca niña (The husband’s return)
Renée Bivas-Sevy (Saloniki, Greece)
Tel Aviv, 31.1.1996, NSA Y7951/4
Lavaba la blanca niña, lavaba y espandía,
con lágrimas la lavaba , con suspiros la 'spandía.
Por ahí pasó un caballero, 'n copo d'agua le demandó,
de lágrimas de sus ojos siete cantaricas le hinchó.
- ¿Por qué lloras, blanca niña? mi siñora, ¿por qué lloras?
- Todos vienen de la guerra, al qu'aspero non hay tornar.
- Dáme siñal, mi siñora, siñal del vuestro balabay.
- Alto, alto como'l pino, derecho como es la flecha,
su barbica roya tiene, empezándol' a despuntar.
- Ya lo vide yo, mi siñora, a la guerra matado sta,
una hora antes que muriera tres palavricas me habló:
mujer hermosa yo tengo, hijicos como es el sol,
y la de tres, mi siñora, que me casara yo con vos.
- Onde siet'años l'asperí, otros siete lo vo 'sperar,
si al de ocho non viene, bivdica quedara ella.
- Non llores más, blanca niña, non llores ni queres llorar:
yo s'el vuestro marido, el qu' asperas de la guerra.
- Si sos el mío marido siñal de mi puerpo daras.
En el pecho de ezquiedro ahí tenes un buen lunar.