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ARC Music reissues its recording of the Oriental side of Jewish music

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a piece about the role played by Mozarabic chant in the development of Western music as we know it and its roots in Gregorian chant. I observed that “Mozarabic” is an Arabic adjective that may be translated as “Arabized.” With respect to plainchant, it refers to the practice of Christians living under Arabic Islamic rule during the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula.

As that conquest spread in several different directions, many Jewish communities also fell under that same Islamic rule. The music of those Jews became an interest of the ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya realized that the creation of the state of Israel attracted Jews from around the world, far beyond those leaving Eastern Europe in search of an alternative homeland. He came to Israel in 1957, and in June and July he made a series of field recordings of Jews who had previously lived in North Africa and Yemen, as well as those from the more remote region of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Those recordings were released on a CD entitled Music of Oriental Jews from North Africa, Yemen, and Bukhara by the British label ARC Records in 2000. This past June ARC reissued this recording, adding a “bonus track” of music from Syria in addition to the eight tracks from North Africa, three tracks from Yemen, and five tracks from Bukhara.

During my student days, the Musical Heritage Society released a set of vinyl recordings under the series title History of Spanish Music. One of those recordings had a few examples of songs with instrumental accompaniment that the Moors had brought to Spain. I found those performances fascinating, not only in their own right but also as a specific instance of an encounter between European and Oriental culture.

Bhattacharya’s recordings covered both sacred and secular music. However, the untrained ear is unlikely to tell the difference by any means other than the identification of particular phrases in Hebrew. Nevertheless, as might be guessed, there is a strong “family resemblance” between the sonorities on the tracks from North Africa and those Moorish songs released by the Musical Heritage Society.

Some may wish to approach this recording as an exercise in exoticism. Others would probably be happier to disregard it for having little, if any, historical import. On the other hand those willing to recognize that not all of our musical traditions are rooted strictly in Europe (particularly western Europe) may find themselves drawn to this rather unique ethnomusicological exercise with its broader scope of the very nature of making music.