Mediterranean Crossroads: The 2016 AIMS Conference

Tangier Songbooks: Nahón & Cohen, Pomeroy & Paloma

TALIM Nahon music
Music image from the Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council

This is how we announced last Friday's event:

A handwritten songbook by Alia Isaac Cohen from 1934 Tangier and a recording from 1929 of two women from Tangier singing traditional ballads and speaking in Haketía will be at the core of the discussion between Dr. Hilary Pomeroy (University College London) and Vanessa Paloma Elbaz (INALCO – Sorbonne Paris Cité).

Eighty years ago Alia Isaac Cohen dated her songbook filled with Romances (Ballads) from the oral tradition. Dr. Pomeroy published an edition and commentary of her songbook in 2005, where she explores the connections that this Moroccan Tangerine matriarch had with the literary tradition from medieval and renaissance Europe.

In 1929, Zarita Nahón recorded Simi Nahón de Toledano in New York while a student of Franz Boas. This recording has been archived at Indiana University’s Archive of Traditional Music. Vanessa Paloma Elbaz (who finished her graduate work in Indiana in 1996) discovered during her research of the Romances of Northern Morocco that her alma mater housed this historic archive and secured a copy to bring back to Morocco to form part of KHOYA: Sound Archive of Jewish Morocco. This recording has never been heard publicly in Morocco and is a rare glimpse into the musical sound of Jewish women from the early twentieth century.

These two scholars will present the written and recorded traces of the Ballads from Tangier and discuss their similarities and differences.

For an eclectic group of scholars and the culturally curious, Hilary Pomeroy on Alia Isaac Cohen and Vanessa Paloma on Zarita Nahón took us through this world of Jews uprooted from Christian Spain, finding refuge in Muslim Morocco, and handing down traditional songs that still evoke the ancient Sephardic homeland of Toledo and Granada.

TALIM Paloma Pomeroy

Thanks to schools like the Alliance Israelite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literate women like Cohen and Nahón took to transcribing the ballads or romances.  Even though many were Christian in origin, they told great stories: war, betrayal, adultery, and the accompanying human emotions.  Some were even sung as lullabies; the cadence was the thing, not the lyrics about adulterous, murderous women!

Surviving over the centuries thanks also to their use in specific religious ceremonies or festivals (though some rabbis tried to keep the more racy ballads out of the synagogue), transmission to the modern age was helped enormously by women like Cohen and Nahón.  Zarita Nahón, a Tangier native who studied philology at Columbia, had direct links to the Jewish intelligentsia of the city, whose education and knowledge of foreign languages had made them the ideal dragoman or interpreter/go-between for generations of diplomats in Morocco's diplomatic capital.

Using the metal tube recording technology of the time, Nahón's work resides at Indiana University.  The audience heard several examples.

Vanessa Paloma continues the work of safeguarding this oral tradition, citing her work with elderly women whose faulty memories are suddenly brought into clear focus on hearing Vanessa break into song.  Hilary Pomeroy cited another who recalled "there was always singing; we sang from dawn to dusk."

Making the link with our own lead soldier display from the Malcolm Forbes collection, Hilary Pomeroy spoke of the ballad by Moroccan Jews rejoicing at the death of Don Sebastian, King of Portugal in Morocco's Battle of the Three Kings.  His defeat and death meant that the Jews and Muslims in Morocco would not be forced to convert to Christianity.

Gerald Loftus, text; Mohammed Jadidi, photo

Sephardic Song in an Anglican Church

TALIM concert VPaloma… accompanied by Muslim women musicians.  As songstress/academic Vanessa Paloma put it: "you've got to love Tangier."

Last night a full "congregation" (well, some of us were there only for Vanessa) of Tangier's music lovers gathered in historic St. Andrew's Anglican church for an evening of Sephardic song.

Former Fulbright scholar Vanessa Paloma, who we've written about before (here and here), returned to her favorite city on the Strait and impressed us with her wide repertoire of songs from Morocco's (and Andalusian Spain's) past.

There's something about Sephardic music.  Sometimes when you shut your eyes, you can hear the long links to its Andalusian and North African homes, a rhythm that would match the gait of a camel caravan crossing the distance of time.

This impression was enhanced by Vanessa's choice of accompanists, Tangeroises Zakia Yahlef, violinist, and percussionist Sanae Hantout.  Educator and fellow blogger Anouar Majid of the University of New England provides us with a nice video excerpt on his blog Tingitana.

Vanessa Paloma explained that

Tonight's concert draws from the rich repertoire of Romances (narrative ballads) that have been sung in Morocco and Andalusia since before the expulsion from the Iberian peninsula.  My work has focused on… transporting forgotten ballads out from the memories of older women and recorded archives to stages throughout the world.

Performer and audience reveled in the multi-religious and multi-cultural content of the songs and of the city in which they were performed.  One Tanjawia, a Muslim, recalled how her grandmother used to sing Jewish ballads in Haketia, the Ladino dialect of northern Morocco.

Vanessa was inspired, seeing a plaque in the church dedicated to 19th century Tangier British diplomat Drummond-Hay, to adjust her program.  She inserted a ballad of Solica or Suleika, the real-life Sol Hachuel, a tragic case about which Drummond-Hay wrote to the Foreign Office.  Paul Bowles, in his 1984 book "Points in Time," wrote about Sol Hachuel, "favored with exceptional beauty," whose walks through the Mellah or Jewish quarter of the Fez medina attracted the attentions of her future husband, a Muslim.  After straying from the boundaries of religion for love, Solica begins to regret her marriage and conversion, but her escape is short-lived and fatal.

Love, longing, loss – and all the dangers that can befall women in a dangerous world (kidnapping, seduction, abandonment of tradition) – were a common theme in Vanessa Paloma's selections.  And what better ballad to conclude the evening than "Mosé salió de Misrayim," the Moses that Muslims know as Musa, and who all three great monotheistic religions venerate.  Truly, it was an evening of celebration of the Mediterranean/Andalusian/Maghrebi world's "tres culturas." 

Vanessa Paloma & the Spirit of Moroccan Jews

TALIM Vanessa Paloma 1
Vanessa Paloma is a singer, performer, scholar and writer specializing in Judeo-Spanish women’s songs and their role in Sephardic communities.  Internationally known for this repertoire, she has performed and lectured on five continents.  A current Research Associate of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, Paloma was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Morocco during 2007-2008.

From her bio.  Official website, and blog.

You don't just get a solo concert, voice and harp, when Vanessa Paloma comes to Tangier.  Vanessa, who spent her Fulbright year here, just around the corner from the Legation, comes home to Tangier, and her loyal following in this city reciprocates by coming in numbers to her concert.  Last Thursday was no exception, despite several other competing cultural events.


TALIM Vanessa 6

Photo by Nathan Evans

Vanessa Paloma's homecoming is more than just revisting her old haunts.  It's a matter of roots: her mother's family, the Colombian side of this very international family, came to Latin America via Tetouan, Tangier's neighbor at the edge of the Rif Mountains.  In other words, Vanessa's work on the music of Morocco's Jewish diaspora is personal.  One of her stories, La Mantilla, traces the story of a shawl brought from Tetouan to Bogotà by her great-great-grandmother.


Her latest book, "The Mountain, the Desert, and the Pomegranate: Stories from Morocco and Beyond" (Gaon Books), provided material for her readings, which bracketed her renditions of often soulful Sephardic songs.  We see that an image of Drouj Merican (the American Steps leading up to the Legation) features in one of her Tangier-based stories.

Vanessa Paloma is not your typical academic, but she is nevertheless a serious scholar of the rich musical tradition of the Jews of Andalusia and the Sephardic diaspora, especially the centuries spent in Morocco, where Jews expelled from Reconquista Spain found refuge.  Here's her introduction to a 2009 paper on the Judeo-Spanish musical tradition in Morocco:

The Judeo-Spanish Romancero song tradition found a hospitable dwelling in
the Jewish communities of Northern Morocco.  The proximity between Spain and
Morocco led to a constant cultural, economic and political exchange across the Strait of Gibraltar.  This maritime frontier, which today is experienced as a formidable barrier for those Moroccans without a visa, was confronted with much more ease and openness in centuries past.  The very fact that each population establishes almost daily visual contact with the land across the Strait determines the continuous presence in the imaginary realm as well as the palpable reality of their contiguity.  A sustained exchange of music and ideas migrated along with commercial goods and diplomatic missions earlier than the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  I like to think of this aqueous frontier as a fluid and live center of intercultural, interreligious and interlingual encounters.

Vanessa's family traversed this aqueous frontier on several occasions (fleeing Spain, emigrating to the New World, then her own "return" to Morocco for her studies and now, as the wife and mother of Jews born in Morocco).  She knows of what she writes – and sings.  It's hard to get more authentic scholarship than that.

Gerald Loftus