Sephardic music

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This article is about the music of the Sephardic Jews. For the main article on secular Jewish music, see Secular Jewish music.

Sephardic music is an umbrella term used to refer to the music of the Sephardic Jewish community. Sephardic Jews have a diverse repertoire the origins of which center primarily around the Mediterranean basin. In the secular tradition, material is usually sung in dialects of Judeo-Spanish, though other languages including Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, and other local languages of the Sephardic diaspora are widely used. Sephardim maintain geographically unique liturgical and para-liturgical traditions.

Songs which are sung by women are traditionally sung while performing household tasks, without accompaniment or harmony. Tambourines and other percussion instruments are sometimes used, especially in wedding songs. Oud and qanún are also used in some instrumentations of Sephardic music, and more modern performers incorporate countless other imported instruments.


Sephardic music has its roots in the musical traditions of the Jewish communities in medieval Spain and medieval Portugal. Since then, it has picked up influences from Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece, and the other places that Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496. Lyrics were preserved by communities formed by the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. These Sephardic communities share many of the same lyrics and poems, but the music itself varies considerably.

Because so many centuries have passed since the exodus, a lot of the original music has been lost. Instead, Sephardic music has adopted the melodies and rhythms of the various countries where the Sephardim settled in. The Greek and Turkish traditions are fairly close. The Moroccan or “western” Sephardic traditions are not that close to the eastern/Greek/Turkish traditions.

These song traditions spread from Spain to Morocco (the Western Tradition) and several parts of the Ottoman Empire (the Eastern Tradition) including Greece, Jerusalem, the Balkans and Egypt. Sephardic music adapted to each of these locales, assimilating North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode.

The song traditions were studied and transcribed in the early twentieth century by a number of musical ethnologists and scholars of medieval Hispanic literature. From around 1957 until quite recently, Samuel Armistead (UC Davis) with colleagues Joseph Silverman and Israel Katz collected the Judeo-Spanish song tradition from informants in North America, Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, North Africa, and Israel. The digitized recordings, with transcriptions and information about song type, is available on the website Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews, now permanently hosted by the University of Illinois Library.

The early 20th century saw some popular commercial recordings of Sephardic music come out of Greece and Turkey, followed by Jerusalem and other parts of the Eastern Tradition. The first performers were mostly men, including the "Turks" Jack Mayesh, Haim Efendi and Yitzhak Algazi. Later, a new generation of singers arose, many of whom were not themselves Sephardic. Gloria Levy, Pasharos Sefardíes, Flory Jagoda and Janet & Jak Esim Ensemble are popular Eastern Tradition performers of this period. Gerard Edery, Savina Yannatou, Stefani Valadez, Françoise Atlan, Marlene Samoun Yasmin Levy and Mara Mara Aranda are among the new generation of singers bringing a new interpretation to the Ladino/Judeo-Spanish heritage and, in the case of Levy and Edery, mixing it with Andalusian Flamenco.

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki (Salonica - Greece) Choir was founded in 1995 by members of the community. The reason of the foundation of this choir was the need and the hope of the revival and keeping the musical tradition that their ancestors took with them when they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula 500 years ago. The research of its conductor 'Kostis Papazoglou' on Sepharadic music,in the medieval tradition (songs like "Tres Ermanikas") and later as music evolved penetrating songs like "Adio Kerida", closer to Romantism and the resulted to a CD, produced by Minos EMI, with the participation of the Codex Ensemble, under the title " En la mar ay una torre " . Today, this choir has 25 - 30 members of different ages, and its conductor Kostis Papazoglou, an experienced and distinguished music teacher, soloist, orchestras conductor, having given concerts all over Greece as well as in Israel (Tel - Aviv), Skopia, Vienna, Salzburg, Bulgaria (Sofia), Russia (St. Petersburg), Egypt (Cairo in the inauguration of the rebuilt of the Ben Ezra Synagogue),Turkey (Istanbul in the Ashkenaz Synagogue on the occasion of the Jewish Culture Week), Hungary (in the Great Budapest Synagogue).


Sephardic music, including pan-Sephardic music which may not necessarily be Judeo-Spanish, is primarily vocal. Instruments, when they are used, are played to accompany songs. Instrumental practice among Sephardim has generally reflected that of the host culture: Greek, Turkish, Moroccan, etc. The instruments most common are plucked lutes (fretless: oud, the Middle Eastern lute; and in Turkey fretted saz or sometimes mandolin or the cumbus), kanun or santur (plucked or hammered Middle Eastern zither), violin and hand drums (frame and goblet).

For weddings and other celebrations, musicians might also be hired from the Muslim community. On the other hand, skilled Jewish musicians would be hired by the Muslim community. Generally, Sephardic men played both local percussion and melody instruments, while women usually sang unaccompanied in domestic contexts, and at weddings accompanied their singing with tambourines and sometimes other percussion instruments. Molho describes Salonica Sephardic women using kitchen utensils as improvised percussion, in a manner reminiscent of Spanish and Portuguese village practice today. (Molho 2021) In the eastern Mediterranean, women musicians specializing in singing and drumming for weddings were known as tanyederas, and they played a central role in the wedding events. Some early 20th-century Ottoman-area Jewish schools taught 'udand mandoline to girls, and some women learned to play the piano. In any case, whether or not instruments are used, the main and always appropriate instrument in Sephardic music is the voice.

Medieval instruments as such are not used, except in cases such as the 'ud where the instrument has survived with minimal changes in traditional practice. Sephardim, like other traditional musicians, often adapt traditional instruments to current norms: at a Sephardic wedding one will definitely not find any medieval instruments, but will likely notice an electronic keyboard.[1]

In Salonica the CODEX ENSEMBLE under the direction of Kostis Papazoglou, uses traditional medieval instruments, accompanying the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki Ladino Choir in some of its concerts.


From the sephardic music roots has grown a large corpus of original new classical music. Notable among modern composers are:

  • Yitzhak Yedid, who has composed mostly for chamber groups, strives to combine classical genres with improvisation of Sephardic roots and Arabic music. Yedid's composition 'Oud Bass Piano Trio' is a good example of this.
  • Betty Olivero, who has taken traditional Jewish melodies – both Ashkenazic and Sephardic – and sets them in complex, profoundly dissonant contexts. Her work Serafim for soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano is a good example of this.
  • Tsippi Fleischer, who has composed vocal works that merge contemporary Western compositional techniques with the modal, quartertone scales of Arabic music.
  • Marina Toshich, Bosnian born Israeli contemporary composer and oud player who uses Sephardi elements from her homeland Bosnia. Also had published Oud educational books in USA (Mel Bays).


Sephardic ensemble Naguila from France and Morocco performing in Warszawa, September 2008.
  • Sefiroth (UK)
  • Mara Aranda (Spain)
  • Yitzhak Yedid (Israel)
  • Yasmin Levy (Israel)
  • Ana Alcaide (Spain)
  • Gloria Levy (USA)
  • Judi Frankel (USA)
  • Mor Karbasi (Great Britain)
  • Yehoram Gaon (Israel)
  • George Dalaras (Greece)
  • Janet & Jak Esim (Turkey)
  • BraAgas (Czech Republic)
  • Avraam Perera (Israel)
  • Fortuna (Brazil)
  • Daddo Dganit (Israel)
  • Rosa Negra - Fado Ladino (Portugal)
  • Glykeria (Greece)
  • Javier Ruibal (Spain)
  • Los Desterrados (Great Britain)
  • Françoise Atlan (France)
  • Soledad Bravo (Venezuela)
  • Joaquín Díaz González (Spain)
  • Yosi Azulay (Israel)
  • Sefarad (Turkey)
  • David d'Or (Israel)
  • Esther Ofarim (Israel)
  • Stefanie Valadez (USA)
  • Neil Sedaka (USA)
  • María Salgado (Spain)
  • Montserrat Franco (USA)
  • Nicole Murad (USA)
  • Avishai Cohen (Israel)
  • Koby Israelite (Great Britain)
  • Lampa Ladino (Russia)
  • Anna Hoffman and Romancero Sefardi (Russia)
  • Sarah Aroeste (USA)
  • DeLeon (USA)
  • La Mar Enfortuna (USA)
  • Sophie Solomon (Great Britain)
  • Adik Chezron (Germany)
  • Israeli Andaluzian Orchestra (Israel)
  • Al Andaluz Project (Spain)
  • Voice of the Turtle (USA)
  • Doris Benmamán (Venezuela)
  • Gerard Edery (Morocco/United States)
  • Kim Cunio (Australia)
  • John Zorn (US)
  • Dina Rot (Argentina)


  • Songs of the Sephardim: Traditional Music of the Spanish Jews by La Rondinella with Tina Chancey (Dorian Discovery, 1993).
  • Spring in Salonica: Sephardic Popular Songs by Savina Yannatou and Primavera En Salonico (Lyra Records, 1996).

"en la mar ay una torre" 19 Sephardic songs by the Jewish Community Choir of Thessaloniki, with the Codex ensemble under the direction of Kostis Papazoglou (Minos EMI)


  1. ^ Cohen, Judith. "Sephardic Song". Midstream Magazine. Hagshama. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  • Cohen, Judith. "Ladino Romance". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 370–379. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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