Troubadour of a Lost Sound: Professor Brings her Sephardic Expertise to Music Fest

Judith Cohen admits it. She’s bi. Bi-musical, that is. That’s the official term to describe musicologists who actually perform the music they study. Certainly that applies to Cohen, an expert on the Jewish music of Spain and Portugal. She routinely takes the concert stage, vielle in hand (that’s an ancient string instrument), singing the lilting melodies of the Sephardim. That’s not all she does. The Canadian-born professor is also the Indiana Jones of Sephardic music, traveling the world in search of a faded Jewish culture. She’s found it everywhere from Turkey to Morocco to the villages of rural Spain. Cohen will share both her knowledge and tunes when she performs Monday, March 28, at the Jewish Music Festival.

The concert is presented as the Sills Memorial Lecture. It is co-sponsored by the Judah L. Magnes Museum and the Maurice Amado Foundation. Accompanying Cohen will be her daughter Tamar, who sings and plays percussion. The two have been performing together since Tamar was 8 (she’s in college now). For the upcoming appearance, Cohen plans to educate her audience as well entertain them. “You obviously want to teach the history of the music you perform,” she says. She will talk about the culture of the Conversos, the hidden Jews of Iberia, who, out of fear of persecution, professed to be Christians following the Inquisition. Is there a singular Sephardic musical style? Other than being sung in Ladino, a dialect comprised of Spanish and Hebrew, there is none, says Cohen. “Because it’s spread over a range of continents and centuries, there’s a lot of borrowing. What we’re good at over the last 1,000 years is borrowing and adapting from wherever we’re living.”

Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Cohen still loves fieldwork, which often takes her to Spain. The region, she says, is experiencing a renaissance in Sephardic music, which appeals to Jews and non-Jews alike. But that doesn’t mean Spain is over its anti-Semitism. Though Spaniards embrace Ladino culture as their own, many of the old canards still crop up from time to time. “You get this contradiction,” says Cohen, “where every folk group wants to learn Sephardic songs. But Jews in Spain are invisible.”

As an English-speaking Ashkenazi girl from Montreal, Cohen may not at first seem a likely champion of Sephardic music. She played clarinet in high school, though early on she developed a love of medieval music. After graduation, wanderlust took her all over the world. Eventually she blended her love of travel with academia. She earned a doctorate in music and has long juggled performing with field study and teaching. She serves as general editor for the Spain series of Alan Lomax Recordings, a compilation of original and previously unpublished folk music from the last century, with new and extended liner notes.

She is also a founding member of Gerineldo, a Moroccan Judeo-Spanish ensemble that has played the Jewish Music Festival. Cohen is on the faculty at York University in Toronto, where she has taught Jewish and medieval music. Few are better able to comment on the state of Sephardic music than Cohen. The Sephardic revival, though maybe less widespread than the klezmer renaissance, brings out equal passion, she says. Still, she does see some room for improvement.

“In the beginning, a lot of people studied klezmer recordings. Many grew up in Ashkenazi households and learned the culture. But the majority of those who perform Ladino songs are not from the culture. Most try to perform Sephardic music as if it’s medieval. It doesn’t bother me as an ethnomusicologist. But as a private person it bothers me.” That may be one reason why she enjoys playing music in as authentic a manner as possible. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a bit of a ham. “It’s fun,” says Cohen of performing. “I love it. I get the audience involved. I see them all as potential friends.”

Judith Cohen will perform 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets: $13-$18. Information: (415) 276-1511 or


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