A Culture Recaptured

Browsers in Istanbul record shops may be put off by the bulky package – Israeli singer Hadass Pal-Yarden’s CD comes with a 160-page booklet filled with photographs and liner notes in three languages. Nonetheless, “Yahudic,” subtitled “Urban Ladino Music,” is a bestseller here. Pal- Yarden’s album is not, as the title might suggest, a Judeo-Spanish hip-hop record, but rather a recreation of the Jewish music that came out of Istanbul, lzmir, Thessalonica and Jerusalem in the early part of the 20th century. And although the music is rewarding in itself, listeners should be thankful for all the explanatory information crammed into the booklet. It details a time when the Ottoman Empire was breathing its last gasps, but its cos-mopolitan cultural and musical life was as lively as ever.

“I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the vibrant Ottoman urban centers, of the tolerance and openness,” Pal-Yarden, 33, says, during an interview in an Istanbul cafe. “It’s not just that people were tolerant of other cultures, they were also curious about other cultures. There was a constant give and take. Armenian traders knew Ladino, Jews in Izmirknew Greek.” That give and take was also taking place in the Ottoman Empire’s musical realm, where Turkish, Greek, Arab, European, Armenian and Jewish musical traditions all influenced one another. Armenians in Istanbul would take a Turkish melody and give it their own words. Sephardi Jews in Thessalonica, on the Greek peninsula but at the time part of the empire, would take a Greek song and reimagine it as a Ladino kantiga, a kind of early 20th-century Judeo-Spanish pop song.

Ladino – derived from medieval Spanish – was still the predominant language spoken among the Jews of the empire, most of whom traced their roots to ancestors who fled the Spanish Inquisition. At the time of the empire’s demise, some 75,000 Jews lived in Thessalonica, 50,000 in Istanbul and 20,000 in Izmir. Most of Thessalonica’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and subsequent large waves of emigration, mostly to Israel, left the size of the Turkish Jewish community at about 25,000.

Up until the early part of the last century, Ladino music’s main function was in the Jewish community’s ritual life, with songs that were connected to religious holidays and life-cycle events, Pal-Yard en says. But with the advent of commercial recordings and the mass distribution of those recordings, Ladino music started branching out. Her album, for example, includes two songs written in the 1930s by the team known as Sadik y Gazoz, two Jewish jour-nalists from Thessalonica who would take ribald popular Greek songs of the day and give them (only slightly less bawdy) Latino lyrics.

“I was interested in seeing how Jews incorporated influences from those around them,” says Pal-Yarden, who first came to Istanbul in 1999 and is currently working on a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Istanbul Technical University. “From a musical perspective, I miss that time,” she adds. “I would like to recreate it.”

With “Yahudice” (pronounced “Yahu-dee-jeh”) which is what Ladino is called in_Turkish, Pal-Yarden tried to recreate that multicultural time, not only on record but also in the studio. Drawing upon Istanbul’s dynamic – and surprisingly young -traditional ethnic music scene, she put together an ensemble of musicians that included a Greek, an Armenian and an Israeli playing alongside Turks. “That’s why it was so important to do it in Istanbul,” continues Pal-Yarden, who has flowing, dark curly hair and a mischievous look in her eyes. ”I’m pretty confident that the music that would have been played in a cafe or nargileh house in the 30s is how our [recording] sounds.”

On the CD, Pal- Yarden’s clear, lilting voice is accompanied by violin, oud, kanun (a dulcimer-like instrument played on the lap), various percussion instruments and the occasional bouzouki. The subject matter of the record’s 14 songs, filled with the half-note filigrees of Ottoman music, ranges from the sacred (one song takes its lyrics from the High Holy Days liturgy) to the profane (“You’ll see whether I love you or not! You alone can set me on fife,” the lyrics to another song passionately declare).

Pal-Yarden collected the material for “Yahudice” by listening to Ladino 78s from the 1920s and 30s and also through field recordings in Jewish old age homes in Thessalonica and Istanbul. But her interest in Ladino music actually dates back to the age of 12, Pal-Yarden says, when she discovered one of Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon’s Ladino records. She has been collecting the music ever since. “It’s a synthesis of several cultures. It’s not homogenous, that’s what attracts me. The singer herself could be seen as a synthesis of cultures. Though the daughter was raised in the Israeli city of Herzliyah, Pal-Yarden’s mother comes from Aleppo, Syria, and her father from Kihis, a city in southeastern Turkey. Pal-Yard en says she grew up in a house where the family watched Arabic-language movies and where her father would listen to Yemenite music. Her mother, while trying to instill in Hadass a strong sense of Israeli identity, also raised her on a steady diet of stories about life in Aleppo. “When I first got to Istanbul, I imagined that I was in Aleppo,” Pal-Yarden says with a laugh.

Released in the middle of last year, “Yahudice” appears to be tapping into Turks’ growing interest in theft country’s ethnic musical heritage. The CD’s first printing of 5,000 sold out quickly – very respectable for a non-pop recording – and a second printing is almost sold out, too. On the best-sellers’ chart at www.musto-gusto.com. a popular, U.s-based on-line distributor of Turkish music, “Yahudice” (which is also available at www.hazjkyah-music.com. as well as in Turkish stores) is currently second only to Turkish pop superstar Tarkan.

“It’s mostly [non-Jewish] Turkish peo-ple who are buying Hadass’s album,” says Hasan Saltik, owner of Kalan, the record company putting out the CD. Pal-Yarden performed “Yahudice’s” material to a standing-room-only crowd during a recent Jewish culture festival in Istanbul and has an up-coming concert at Babylon, one of the city’s hippest nightclubs. She says she plans to stay in Turkey another year, while she works on her doctorate. She is also collecting material for an-other Ladino album.

The singer was in Istanbul during the recent string of devastating suicide bombings, two of which targeted synagogues in the city. Pal-Yarden says interest among the Turkish public in Jewish culture is still strong in the wake of the bombings, but that cultural life has been hit by the attacks. “There is less money to produce shows, there is a heaviness in the air, she says. “I can’t tell you … that I’m not concerned about security now when I have a show,” Pal-Yarden adds. “What can I say? We’re praying for the best.”

The success of what has been a very personal project is gratifying. Despite the annotated booklet and the rigorous re-search used to compile the CD’s songs, Pal-Yarden approached the recording of “Yahudice” as an artist, not an academic. “I was striving for something authentic, but also something true to me as an artist,” she says. “It’s not only a revival. It’s an attempt to bring forward urban Ladino music that is less familiar to the wider audience, and to give it my interpretation.


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