Sephardic Songs to Sail Through Jewish Museum Halls

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The Jewish Museum of Maryland will host Turkish mezzo-soprano Lori Şen, guitarist Jeremy Lyons, and pianist Ying-Shan Su for an afternoon concert of Sephardic music, Feb. 9.

Sephardic Jews are of Spanish, Portuguese, or North African descent. After the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1429, the Jews from that region carried their Sephardic culture, traditions, and Ladino language, (similar to 15th-century Castilian Spanish) with them. They also carried their oral literature, which includes historic folk songs.


“These songs reflect the diverse influences of the many cultures they encountered throughout their 500-year-long journey. The music itself is a fusion of Western classical music of all periods starting from medieval; Spanish, Moroccan, Balkan, and Greek musical traditions; and Turkish folk and classical forms, including the Middle Eastern modal practice, maqam,” said Şen, who is Sephardic and hails from Izmir, Turkey.

The concert stems from a college project by Şen.

Lori Sen, Courtesy of JMM

“I serendipitously came across Joaquín Rodrigo’s ‘Cuatro Canciones Sefardíes,’ which is a collection of four Sephardic songs arranged by the famous Spanish composer. Through quick research, I found out that Rodrigo’s wife, Victoria Kamhi, was a Turkish-Jewish pianist, who was his inspiration in arranging these songs.” She was encouraged to look for more Sephardic songs arranged by Western classical composers. She found so many that she had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. “Of course, I also wanted to perform these songs, and therefore, I made it my dissertation project to perform and write about this repertoire.”

She identified more than 45 composers and 190 Sephardic song arrangements, which she performed in recitals.

Eventually, she got in touch with JMM.

“We were originally connected to Lori through Dr. Melanie Pinkert, our executive director’s wife who was studying at the University of Maryland at the same time as Lori,” JMM Programs Manager Trillion Attwood said.

JMM invited Şen to present a lecture recital in March of 2019. At the recital, she discussed Sephardic history, language, and culture, as well as elements and stylistic features of Sephardic music. The lecture was followed by a recital with Jeremy Lyons, who had accompanied her as a guitarist during the performances.

Jeremy Lyons, Courtesy of JMM

“I personally love this music because it is so much made for my instrument. … The classic guitar and today’s has roots in Spain. So much of this music overlaps in style and sound,” said Lyons.

Attwood then invited Şen and Lyons to return for JMM Live: Jewish Folk Life Festival this February. Ying-Shan Su joined the picture when she met Şen at the University of Maryland School of Music, where Su was a doctoral student in collaborative piano.

“Of course, I was thrilled about the opportunity to collaborate with the Jewish Museum on a recital again and responded positively,” said Şen. “I am very excited about our upcoming performance at the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue.”

Şen recommends Sephardic music for its “very unique flavor.” She enjoys telling stories through music.

“It has been truly fulfilling to observe the intrigue sparked by this,” Şen said. “I have also loved experiencing a certain connection with the Jewish audience members, who have expressed a feeling of nostalgia, home, and belonging after listening to these songs.”

Ying Shan Su courtesy of JMM

Lyons enjoys the concert because of its authenticity. He said that listeners will find the songs familiar, in that perhaps they heard a lullaby before. He pointed out that one of the songs, “Fel Sharah Canat Betet Masha,” is hugely popular in Turkey but rarely recognized as Sephardic.

“It’s a good time, presenting with the voice and guitar dynamic is very authentic, because it’s likely this is how it was celebrated,” Lyons said. “A lot of times, we think of art music as 19th century Europe like Beethoven. They’re usually using the piano, but the reality is, unless you were wealthy, you didn’t have a piano. So, songs were shared with a guitar, which you can take to a friend’s house.”

One of Şen’s favorite pieces is “Adio Querida” (or “Adio Kerida”).

“People often tend to mistake music for a form of entertainment, when it is, in fact, a form of expression that involves and reflects the lives, thoughts, emotions, perspectives, and philosophies of people, as well as the historical events, political, religious, and socioeconomic issues they experience,” Şen said. “Music, as well as other art forms, has an immense potential to encourage empathy, understanding, and acceptance.”

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