Back in the early 1960s, a young Jewish vocalist stumbled upon a few unusual Spanish-language songs. Assuming they were from South America, she incorporated them into her eclectic repertoire of ethnic music. It was a nice addition, but nothing more.
Judy Frankel had no idea that the songs were artifacts of an endangered culture, nor that she would one day devote herself to preserving this rich heritage.
Some 35 years later, the singer is recognized as one of the leading interpreters of traditional Sephardic music. For the past decade, Frankel has gathered songs from the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews exiled in 1492, recording four albums and touring extensively in the U.S. and Europe.
Frankel's music--which can be heard tonight in a show called "The Sephardic Soul of Spain" at the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre--is part of a growing fascination with Sephardic culture in Los Angeles (home to some 100,000 Sephardic Jews) and around the world.
Distinct from the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, Sephardic Jews trace their roots back to the Iberian Peninsula, where their ancestors contributed richly to Spain's medieval Golden Age and absorbed its diverse influences. When the Inquisition culminated in their expulsion, they dispersed to North Africa, Turkey and Greece, among other places, but many held on to their culture and language--a mix of Spanish and Hebrew commonly known as Ladino (Judeo-Spanish is the broader and more accurate term). A large number of Jews also settled among Middle Eastern, or Mizrahi, Jewish enclaves.
While the term "Sephardic" has come to embrace all non-Ashkenazi Jews, Frankel has concentrated on the musical tradition of those communities that kept alive the flame of medieval Judeo-Spanish society. Decimated by the Holocaust and assimilation, the dwindling subculture of Jews who continue to speak the language and sing the songs, passed along in an oral tradition, will likely not survive far into the next century.
"They've told me they think they are the last generation who will be speaking Judeo-Spanish," says Frankel in a phone interview. "I felt that somebody ought to get out there and do something about this."
Frankel is something of an unlikely candidate for her role as chronicler of Sephardic folk treasures. Born and raised in Boston, she comes from an Ashkenazi family. She received classical music training, first on the piano and later the flute. Though she was always drawn to a wide variety of ethnic music, much of her early career as a vocalist was spent with classical ensembles, including Boston's Handel and Haydn Choral Society and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. (She is still a soloist with the San Francisco Consort, an early-music ensemble.)
It was in the mid-'80s, while singing to patients in a San Francisco hospital, that providence intervened. Upon learning that one of her patients was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey, Frankel--who by this time had some familiarity with Sephardic music--sang the Spanish-language songs she had discovered 20 years earlier. The music provoked a surprisingly emotional response.
"One would never expect to see watery eyes in this woman," Frankel recalls. "She became very tearful, and said to me in her broken English that she hadn't sung these songs in 60-something years, and hadn't even heard them in 40-something years. I think she just couldn't believe what was happening."
Inspired by this experience, Frankel secured a grant to gather songs (in Ladino as well as Yiddish and Hebrew) from elderly Jews living in the Bay Area. The project led to a series of community concerts, which prompted requests for recordings of the Ladino songs. This in turn led to more fieldwork, and before long Frankel had become immersed in an oral tradition stretching back more than five centuries. "It just kind of snowballed," she says.
Frankel's repertoire, collected almost exclusively through her own research, traverses the Sephardic world. Her new album, "Tresoros Sephardis" (Sephardic Treasures), includes selections sung by Jews from Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Venezuela and the former Yugoslavia.
Some of the songs are delicate, mournful ballads accompanied only by Frankel's spare guitar. Others feature instrumentalists such as oud player John Bilezikjian (who will play with her tonight) and are suffused with the melodies and rhythms of North Africa and the Near East. A number of Frankel's songs date back to pre-expulsion Spain, evoking the medieval milieu in which Sephardic culture evolved.
Collecting the songs, Frankel says, had its difficulties. Sephardic Jews harbor some mistrust toward the dominant Ashkenazi culture, and many Sephardic leaders regarded Frankel as an outsider. "I really had to win them over," she says, noting that the suspicion eased when they heard her renditions of Ladino songs--which reviewers have hailed for their unusual grace and authenticity.
"What is so significant is that she's Ashkenazi and we're Sephardic, and there is a lot of difference," remarks Albert Passy, managing editor of the L.A.-based bimonthly Sephardic newsletter Lashon and publisher of "The Sephardic Folk Dictionary." "It's like night and day. However, her renditions are as authentic as could be, plus her voice is so clear and beautiful."
Frankel is not alone in her efforts to document the rapidly disappearing musical inheritance of the Judeo-Spanish diaspora. Judith Cohen, a Toronto-based artist, has done extensive fieldwork, while other singers such as Isabel Ganz and Lauren Pomerantz have also recorded Ladino songs. Nearly 1,500 narrative songs were collected for amultivolume publication, "Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews," compiled by professors Samuel Armistead, Joseph Silverman and Israel Katz during fieldwork that began in the 1950s.
Armistead, who teaches at UC Davis, praises Frankel and others for helping to safeguard Judeo-Spanish music. These songs, he says, are "a testament to the multisecular adventure of Sephardic Jews and their creativity. Their musical and poetic legacy reflects everywhere they've been and, in a very faithful way, the medieval culture they came from."
The demise of the tradition has infused Frankel's work with an undeniable urgency. Yet underlying her cultural preservation mission is a more fundamental motivation.
"I sing what I love," she says, "and I happen to love this."
* "The Sephardic Soul of Spain," 7:30 tonight, Wilshire-Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. 8th St., with Frankel and flamenco artists Adam and Laila Del Monte. $26-$55. (323) 650-3157.