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¡Ay! Ribadavia: Re-creating Sephardic Culture in a Galician Town

Judith R. Cohen

El pueblo de Ribadavia, en Galicia, lleva 9 años presentando la "Festa da Istoria". Se trata de una re-invención moderna, basada en un acontecimiento que tuvo lugar en este pueblo, probablememte desarrollado por descendientes de judíos conversos durante los siglos 16-19. Aquí se examinan algunos cambios realizados por los cantantes, en el repertorio seleccionado por los organizadores de esta recreación, y posteriormente, la recepción equívoca de la Festa como real supervivencia de la vida judía en la España medieval - cuestión esta nunca planteada por los organizadores. Posteriormente, se examinan cuestiones relativas a la apropiación cultural junto a la posibilidad de que no se trate tanto de una "apropiación" cuanto, de una "re-apropiación", si es que tal fenómeno puede existir.

"¡Ay! Ribadavia": Re-creating
Sephardic Culture in a Galician Town

In 1993, a chain of coincidences going back to my hitchhiking days 20 years earlier led to my performing medieval and Sephardic songs in Vigo, Galicia. After the concert a group of people spoke to me about a festival in nearby Ribadavia, and thrust a video and file folder into my hands. One year later, I had helped put together the programme of the Ribadavia Sephardic song festival, my daughter and I were singing in it, and the town felt as if it had been my home for years instead of days.

Ribadavia is an inland town of some 3000 souls near Orense in Galicia, on the Avia River which gave it its name. On a quiet day, it is easy to conjure up its medieval origins as you stroll around the steep, narrow streets, pleasant main square and requisite ruined castle. During the Middle Ages, Ribadavia had a thriving Jewish population. The chronicler Froissart estimated it at 1500, though this figure appears exaggerated, and must at the very least have included Jews from other areas temporarily there to seek refuge (Froissart 86: "plus de quinze cens"). Today, there are only two Jewish households, neither of them Sephardic, and both recent arrivals. However, the town is now an integral part of the Spanish "Caminos de Sefarad", along with eight others, and has been receiving increasing attention from tourists. It has often played host to conferences and festivals on Sephardic themes, and the women who live in the medieval Jewish quarter know more Judeo-Spanish songs than do many Sephardic women I've interviewed, though they've learned them only over the past few years, mostly from recordings.

In this paper, I would like to give a brief overview of the Sephardic activities in Ribadavia, and comment in more detail on two recent events, a staged Sephardic wedding and a Sephardic music festival. I will point out their relation to the recent upsurge of interest in Sephardic culture, particularly in Spain, and touch on some questions concerning an ever-increasing preoccupation of late 20th-century ethnomusicology: cultural appropriation.

Ribadavia's old Jewish quarter has been declared a cultural monument. It includes about eight medieval buildings, with several others from the 16th century and later; most of the buildings have been altered inside. The former synagogue and the mikvé (ritual bath) are now both privately owned; the latter is now part of the floor of a popular bar. Jews played an important part in Ribadavia's history, including their defense of it during the siege by the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt; see Meruéndano and Onega) in 1386. The Inquisition arrived there relatively late, and it is thought that many Jews remained as conversos there and/or nearby, so that there may well be a high proportion of their descendants. This, however, is the case in much of the Iberian Peninsula; in fact, there seems to be as much effort put into recuperating its Jewish past as there formerly was to eradicating what was its Jewish present. Be that as it may, Ribadavia's barrio judío has always been known for what it is in local tradition, and is still referred to with pride and affection, for example, "my family have always lived here."

An unusual event linked to Ribadavia's conversos is documented from the late 16th/early 17th century, through the middle of the 19th. This is the "Istoria", a performance of a play with Old Testament themes and characters. Various plays were associated with the event, including La Prudente Abigail and other works by the 17th century converso poet Antonio Enriquez Gómez. In 1986, a group of residents concerned about the survival of the Jewish Quarter came up with the idea of reviving the "Istoria", and adapting it to appeal to a broad public. Xosé-Ramón Aparicio, one of the group, created a new dramatic work for it: El Malsín. The early September date was retained, and, more important, the historic location in the Jewish quarter. In 1989 they formed the Centro de Estudis Medievais. The Center's internal and local politics need not concern us here; what is of immediate interest is that it was not the committee, but rather a group of middle-aged women from the Jewish Quarter itself who in 1992 came up with the idea of staging a Sephardic wedding as part of the Festa da Istoria, and began their own research, initially on costumes.

As of 1997, the Festa da Istoria has been held in its revived and adapted form for nine years, with a Sephardic mock-wedding component from 1993 on. The medieval, or rather neo-medieval components include costumes, an ongoing street market and, until 1996, a battle on horseback. The Festa currency is the maravedí, and the organizers use five percent of the exchange towards covering costs. The Festa attracted 10,000 visitors in 1993, and 25,000 in 1994 - this in a town of only 3000. As it became an important tourist attraction, a complicated series of events led to its being taken over from the original organizers and to the appointment of an outside coordinadora. This committee began to downplay the Festa's Jewish element, while emphasizing the commercial aspects of the medieval component. This approach illustrates the "value-added" nature of the heritage industry as discussed by Barabara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: adding value to "existing assets that have either ceased to be viable...or never were economically productive" (1995:370). At the same time, it has led to considerable tension between the committee and the original organizers.

At first glance, particularly with the emphasis on tourist-aimed medievalism, the Festa could be any self-styled medieval or renaissance fair in some North American city. Even with this exaggerated pseudo-medievality, though, not only does the medieval atmosphere not need to be re-created, many people are actually practising their own crafts and skills. Even the knights in the horseback battle are not imports from the Society for Creative Anachronism, but almost all local village men. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett postulates, as a main feature of heritage industry, the "foreigness of the tradition to the presentation context" (374). In this case, the "foreignness" is only partial, though it is increasing: the Ribadavians are re-creating and re-enacting their own past, in their own streets and castle grounds - really re-enacting themselves.

But can "re-acting their own past" be extended to their representation of a Sephardic wedding? The Ribadavia group is, of course, not the first to stage a similar event or, indeed, to video it, though they did arrive at the idea independently. The special interest of the Ribadavia event lies in its conception and execution entirely by non-Jews and non-professionals, and its location in a historic pre-expulsion Jewish quarter whose inhabitants are the main actors in the event. In fact, there is the poignant possibility that some of them are probably themselves descendants of conversos.

The wedding as performed contains musical and ceremonial elements from both Moroccan and Ottoman Sephardic culture, strung together with at least as much creativity as authenticity. The programme, as I saw it in 1996, had been more or less set for a few years: it opened with a mid-morning parade followed by electronically amplified announcements in the main square (restored to its gathering function from its current parking-lot function for the event). Scheduled activities included children dressed and moving about as giant chess pieces; a pseudo-medieval women's dance; a few concerts by local groups; a late-night "medieval dinner"; the Sephardic mock-wedding and an evening theatre production (more will be said on this below). No one was permitted into the grounds of the castle ruins - normally an open, public space, like any park, except for concerts in its ampitheatre - unless dressed in "medieval" costume.

Food, wine and crafts booths ran all day throughout the narrow streets of the Barrio Judío. My own daughter, 10 years old at the time, set up shop in one of the booths, dressed in a Moroccan kaftan and selling hand-woven friendship bracelets. Among the food booths were sausage stands - pork sausages and ham sandwiches under banners displaying the Maguen David, the Star of David! No one besides myselfseemed to find this incongruous.

The representation of the actual wedding ceremony takes place in an outdoor "synagogue" specially erected for the event. A ketubbá (wedding contract) calligraphed by a local artist is read out . The ritual readings in Hebrew from the Torah are done by a local man who is an ex-priest, now married and a father. When the original association was in charge of the event, as in the video recording they gave me, the mock wedding was allotted much more time, and included the "couple"'s being led to a specially prepared bed, as well as more songs and dancing in the streets. In 1996, with the responsibility taken over by the coordinadora, the "wedding" lasted much less time, only a few songs were performed and much of the musical style which had been developed had eroded away.

It would take much too long to describe, much less analyze, every change, inaccuracy or omission of the staged wedding. Here, I'll focus on the choice and performance of the song repertoire. For the first of the two staged weddings, in 1993, the organizers gathered whatever recordings of Judeo-Spanish songs were available to them, from both the Moroccan and Eastern Mediterranean traditions, in a range of traditional and more modern styles. There were also non-Sephardic songs, including a local composition entitled "let the Jews go by!" ("a los judíos dejad pasar"), referring to the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter.

Aparicio coordinated the songs; rather than impose his choice on the singers, he had them listen to the recordings together and make their own selections. This ended up as a mixture of older-style traditional songs and more modern items: in all cases, the songs were those which appealed to the singers and which they were likely to sing with conviction. By far the favourite song was not one of the older traditional ones, but the early 20th century Istanbul "I'd give my life for rakí..." In 1995, I taught the singers a few more traditional songs, basing my selection on my observation of what had appealed to them earlier.

What Aparicio had already tried to do was avoid or at least modify the occidental choir sound which many of the women had acquired from years of singing in a choral group. However, as the women worked entirely aurally/orally, and were used to singing both choir music and the local repertoire, they made changes to the songs as they learned them, and integrated them into their own repertoire of local folksongs.

Some changes, such as pronunciation (Castillian "la vida doy [instead of "do"] por el rakí"; Castillian ceceo (lisped) "thirma" for sirma); rhythmic adjustments or the occasional harmonizing in thirds are easily explained by local practice. But I was especially intrigued by two melodic changes the women made: the first in "Daile a cenar al desposado", where the third of four short phrases was persistently altered, and the other in the Salonica version of "Ya salió de la mar la galana": lowering the third to change the mode in the verses and raising it again in the refrain (see appendix for transcriptions). Aparicio had in fact noticed the change in the women's rendition of "Ya salió", and tried to correct it, but apparently the guitarist kept playing it "their" way, while the women went back and forth between the two, which suggested to me that in "emic" perception there was no difference between the two pitches.

In the summer of 1995, I interviewed some of the women about these changes; they didn't really perceive "their" version as any different from the original. I sang the song with them several times, all of us stopping on and holding the altered third so that their minor third was held against my major third. They then agreed that their version was different, and suggested it was a "bad habit". I said, no, not bad or good, simply different, and asked whether they wanted to correct it to the original. They replied simply, "we've always sung it that way." This floored me, for it seemed that not only had they integrated Sephardic songs into their repertoire 500 years after Sephardic Jews had officially ceased to live there, not only did they feel comfortable enough to make changes in these songs, but they had even appropriated them as part of their own oral tradition, knowing perfectly well that they had been introduced from outside only a year earlier! Their feeling that the tradition is now part of their own is also demonstrated by the fact that now that the Festa has become more official, more institutionalized, more administered from the outside, they are less enthusiastic about continuing to perform the Sephardic wedding aspect. This is ironic, as they themselves had originally proposed it to strengthen the Jewish element the coordinadora has been tending to downplay.

On another, less apparent, level than melodic alterations, the women used the singing sessions as a vehicle for personal rivalries. Comments such as "she doesn't sing very well" didn't necessarily refer to the criticized person's knowledge of the tune or her singing ability but rather to the speaker's personal dislike of her for unrelated reasons. Whereas earlier on, the idea of singing together for the "boda" helped them put their personal differences behind them, and unite under the idea of being from the Jewish Quarter and singing Jewish wedding songs, now the problems are re-surfacing and being expressed indirectly through the singers' mutual criticism of each other's musical abilities.

By 1996, the original group's role in the Festa had all but disappeared. Aparicio and another member of the group had moved to Vigo, only an hour's drive away, but found they were not being contacted about planning meetings. In fact, Aparicio's play, El Malsín was performed at the Festa - with substantial changes to the script - without his being asked, or even notified - or identified as the author on the festival programme. Also, another element had been added. The small Jewish community of Porto, some two hours south of Vigo in Portugal, decided to celebrate Friday night, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, as part of the event.A good deal of discussion took place about whether an actual religious event should be included in what was a liberally interpreted, commercially presented historical re-creation. Indeed, for most of the attendees, the service - held in a former church - was just another part of the "show": though they were asked not to applaud, some did. The television crews were cooperative about not filming during the actual service.

The result, not surprisingly, was to reinforce the misconception that the Festa as performed is a long-standing survival of Jewish tradition. Shortly afterwards, I spent Jewish New Year in Madrid, and was invited to have lunch at the home of one of the families. Another guest, also Jewish, who knew nothing about my connection to Ribadavia, told us enthusiastically about her visit to the Festa - and how miraculous it was that this "authentic medieval Jewish tradition" had been preserved. It was a theme I was to hear increasingly over the year and one which, again, the tourist propaganda does nothing to correct. Last year, during the Jewish winter festival of Hanuka, some of the original committee members were invited to celebrate with the Porto community. They sang some of the songs which they'd learned from recordings for the mock wedding, and, though they explained where they'd learned the repertoire, the Porto community, including a non-Jewish historian, remained convinced that they were "authentic Crypto-Jewish survivals". Late in 1996, a highly-educated Jewish man in Lisbon kept insisting that the Festa "must" be a "really Jewish" event and was quite upset when I explained what its origins are. In a small village in the Ribadavia area, an elderly woman from whom we were recording local songs and tambourine rhythms told us that the people of Ribadavia were "all Jewish" and that they "even" held their own "Jewish festival" every year: in other words, in just under a decade the re-invented/reconstructed Festa has actually come to be seen as a long-standing tradition even by people who have lived in the area all their lives. By 1997, villagers n the Ribadavia area, white-collar professionals on the Vigo-Madrid train, and others, appeared convinced that the Festa as well as the Ribadavians themselves are all "authentic survivals" of pre-Expulsion Jewish life.

The second event, the 1994 Sephardic festival, complemented the interest sparked and maintained by the enactment of the wedding, and took place only a couple of weeks before that year's Festa da Istoria. Originally the organizers had hoped to invite only performers who were themselves Sephardic, or who at least had worked extensively with traditional Sephardic singers. Of the names I suggested (at their request), however, few worked out, for various reasons; only one performer actually was Sephardic; three, including myself, had worked with Sephardic traditional singers, and the fifth was the only Spanish performer on the programme . The festival, called "Sons de Matria" (all the performers were women), also included talks by specialists on various aspects of Judeo-Spanish culture. The concerts were all performed again in St. James of Compostela, and one in a popular bar-café.

The events were all well attended and positively received at the time; however, I later heard that at least one Spanish scholar disagreed with the choice of performers and felt that the event as a whole was not academic enough. The organizers replied that in 1991 they had run a highly successful academic conference with two thick volumes of published Acts, and that this year's event was more aimed at disseminating knowledge of and interest in Judeo-Spanish culture for the general public. And indeed, this aim was fulfilled. Performers, speakers and townspeople spent their evenings together after the presentations, talking and singing in bars or café's into the wee hours; while the open-air bar in the main square continually played performers' tapes. In this way, not only were Judeo-Spanish songs integrated into the town repertoire, but the staged wedding, the Festa da Istoria and the Festival's concerts and lectures reinforced each other, contributing to a general appreciation of Sephardic culture.

Appreciation notwithstanding, it is undeniable that the staged wedding contained several inaccuracies. I was curious to know whether the Jewish community in Madrid had been involved in planning the wedding, whether they had attended it, and, if so, how they had responded. Aparicio explained that, while he felt they were on fairly solid ground historically, he was concerned about the representation of the wedding ceremony and, besides reading what materials were available, had tried to consult the community in Madrid, but with limited success.

Originally, members of the Madrid Jewish community were to attend the festival but its being held on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, made this impossible on a community level, and in fact generated some negative feeling. Several Argentinian Jews, who tend to be more loosely associated with the Jewish community, did attend and reacted enthusiastically. Later, the organizers showed the video to members of the Madrid community, and commented that the younger members in particular liked it.

In July 1995, I discussed it with the rabbi in Madrid, and a couple of other community members, but was able to actually screen it only with one, known for her expertise in traditional weddings. There was general agreement, including from the rabbi, that, so long as it was done with respect, there was no objection to non-Jews staging a Sephardic wedding. The wedding expert pointed out several errors, from the bride casually smoking in the street, to men and women - including the "rabbi" - dancing together; she was, in fact, interested in helping with the event another year, but not if it was held on the Sabbath. Several Sephardim present at a conference in England screened it with me; they caught all the errors immediately, but mostly laughed good-humouredly about them.

It is tempting to analyze the Ribadavia events in the context of Spain's interest in Sephardic culture and, more recently, converso survivals, especially over the past decade. The para-1992 years saw a dizzying array of festivals, conferences, recordings and publications related to Judeo-Spanish history and culture. One might see the Ribadavia events as just another few in the series; however, the organizers are quite clear that their event was conceived independently and that, in fact, the 1992 events were not particularly noted in Galicia, certainly not in their corner of it. In fact, Aparicio explains, part of the motivation for the Sephardic wedding component grew out of a conflict with the coordinadora's moves toward downplaying the Festa's Jewish elements.

For me, the main difference was not whether the Ribadavia event was conceived independently, but rather the feeling of connectedness to Sephardic culture which was evident in the residents. This had already existed to some extent before the Festa da Istoria's revival, and was clearly reinforced by it, and especially by the staged wedding. A local woman baker, for example, in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, has become well-known even outside the town for her "Jewish pastries", and is actively seeking more traditional Sephardic recipes. Authentic details or not, Ribadavians clearly felt that in many ways Sephardic culture was their own.

This situation raised questions for me as an ethnomusicologist beyond trying to understand why the singing women changed the mode of a wedding song. The main issue for me centres around the same element which I find so exciting about the staged wedding. The very fact that the boundaries between organizers and the public, actors and audience were dissolved for the event, making it an invaluable learning and human experience, was the catalyst for my concern about cultural appropriation. Where a straightforward conference is concerned, the answers are a little easier. But in performance, however laudable the motives, is it ever justifiable to perform aspects of a culture not one's own, particularly aspects concerned with ritual and ceremony, and if so, under what circumstances? How justified, if at all, is it to make changes in the traditions represented; indeed, to what degree is accuracy possible?

In this case, for example, the original Festa da Istoria spanned three centuries: which moment is the "accurate" one to represent? As for the wedding, would it have been preferable to omit it altogether? to try to reenact a pre-Expulsion wedding, with more historical accuracy but less music and joie-de-vivre? Should they have chosen 19th-century Salonica, early 20th century Tangier, some vague ethnographic present - or the 1992 wedding ceremony I saw in Istanbul with the bride's white European dress and pre-recorded music? And do the inaccuracies, even the process of folklorization, intentional or not, end up disseminating understanding or misunderstanding of the tradition?

Inevitably, questions of appropriation bring us to questions about boundaries and identity, who is the insider and the outsider, who is qualified to authenticate these activities, if indeed they can or should be "authenticated". The answers are seldom easy. In Spain in general, and this remote corner of Spain in particular, where so many people may be descendants of conversos, they are even more difficult. How much is appropriation and how much re-appropriation? Is singing an early 20th century Judeo-Spanish song while roaming the old Jewish Quarter in modern versions of medieval garb simply a commercialized anachronism, no matter how laudable the original motive? Is it merely part of the para-1992 Spanish enthusiasm for Sephardic culture or the ever-increasing interest in converso survivals? Perhaps it is simply an illustration of the past as part of the heritage industry's "value-added" approach: as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett puts it, this value-added past "transports tourists from a now that signifies hereness to a past that signifies thereness...", part of the "collaborative hallucination" (375) or the "tourist surreal" (371).

For Aparicio and his colleagues, the outsider component is indeed present, but on the other hand, the real outsiders are not the Ribadavians still living a partly traditional life reflected in aspects of the Festa, but rather the people brought in from outside to organize it now that it's become "big business". Ribadavians are living a caballo entre dos mundos ("on horseback between two worlds"), the traditional and the contemporary, semi-rural, semi-urban. For them, he feels, the outsider component of their rendition of the Festa has its own traditional aspect: it is their vehicle for the tradition of the espíritu lúdico, getting to know other people, other ways through the spirit of playfulness, of the game, of that untranslatable Spanish quality alegría. This approaches Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's conclusion that it is not a "vivid museum experience" which is "at stake", but that performance is indispensable: "nothing is more multi-sensory than the lifeworld itself, particularly in its most intense, which is to say, its performative modes" (378-9).

Meanwhile, for Sephardic Jews watching a video of a representation of their tradition performed inaccurately by outsiders on the Jewish Sabbath, the question must still remain: even if the motivation is all positive, is this representation justified by the sincere conviction that what the citizens are doing is, in fact, "bringing it all back home"?

Judith R.Cohen

Sources Used

  • Barros, Carlos,1994. "El otro admitido, la tolerancia hacia los judíos en la Edad Media Gallega", in Xudeus e Conversos na Historia, Diputación de Orense, I:85-115.
  • Dille, Glen,1988. Antonio Enriquez Gómez, Boston: Twayne.
  • Festa da Istoria 4/9/93, Centro de Estudos Medievais, Ribadavia, booklet and video.
  • Festa da Istoria 3/9/94: programme booklet, Ribadavia.
  • Froissart,1871. Oeuvres de Froissart, Brussels, v. 12 (1386), 79ff.
  • Gerineldo (recording),1992. De Fiestas y Alegrías, Madrid: Tecnosaga, Saga KPD 10.897.
  • Interviews: with Xosé-Ramón Aparicio, Ribadavia August 1994, Toronto May 1995, Ribadavia July 1995, Vigo summer 1996; with choir members, Ribadavia, July 1995; with members of Madrid Sephardic community, July 1995, September 1996: Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, Señora Anita Bensadon (in person); Señor José Benaim (telephone); with Oporto and Lisbon Jewish communities 1996-7; Orense area villages July 1997; various conversatios, Spain and Portugal 1996-97.
  • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara,1995. "Theorizing Heritage", in Ethnomusicology 39/3:367-380.
  • Kramer-Hellinx, Nechama, "Antonio Enríquez Gomez (1600-1662): Desafío de la Inquisición", in Xudeus... I:289-307.
  • Levy, Gloria (recording),1958. Sephardic Folk Songs, New York: Folkways FW8783, 1958.
  • Meruéndano L.,1981 (1915). Los Judíos de Ribadavia, facsimile Ed. Alvarellos, Lugo.
  • Oelman, Timothy, 1982. Marrano Poets of the 17th Century, Toronto: Associated University Press.
  • Onega, José-Ramón,1981. Los Judíos en el Reino de Galicia, Madrid: Ed. Nacional, 1981.

NB. The musical transcriptions cannot be included here for technical reasons. This article is a revised and updated version from Donaire 1996, in July 1997.

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