Collector on a quest to find all Ladino songs ever recorded
By Daniel Santacruz
It was 1976 when Joel Bresler bought his first recording of Sefardic music, an LP. Today, 38 years later, he owns about 4,000 recordings of the genre on different formats: digital, CDs, cassettes, LPs and 78s. His passion for that music started during his college years when, he said, he listened to “a lot” of Renaissance and Medieval music. That passion grew while attending concerts by Voice of the Turtle (VOT), an ensemble best known for performing Sefardic music.
Based in the Boston, Mass., area VOT was considered one of the leading groups in the field. In the mid-1990s he took his hobby one
step further and “decided to collect every recording I could that had even one Ladino song,” as he writes in his website, www.sephardicmusic.org.
A short time later, he started to work on a discography of Ladino songs on LPs, cassettes, CDs and 78s. Finding 78s was particularly challenging as they were difficult to find. Bresler’s site is a source of authoritative information about the evolution of Ladino music (from the early repertory in the 1900s to today), as well as about performers, recordings and recording companies. Of particular interest to music buffs and
collectors is the Appendices page of the site, which contains an impressive list of label-specific discographies, songs and interpreters.
Or maybe you are interested in hearing what Ladino songs sounded like in the 1910s and 1920s? Then listen to renditions by the Turkish-born Haim Effendi or the Stamboul Quartette, which recorded in New York City.
Bresler has processed some 11,000 song performances for the collection, which is digitized, and expects that, when finished, it will include more than ninety percent of the modern recordings and about half of the 78s. The site also helps scholars in their research on Ladino music. The Jewish Music WebCenter picked Bresler’s site as the Featured Site for December 2008 and called it “an extremely worthy effort, and due a lot of recognition in the Jewish music world.” “A very determined discographer and collector,” as he calls himself, Bresler is Technology
Portfolio Director at the Center for Research Innovation in Northeastern University, in Boston. He studied Economics at Tufts University and lives in Lexington, a suburb of Boston. Following are excerpts of an interview with him. Kolsefardim: What triggered your interest in Ladino music? Joel Bresler: I listened to a lot of Renaissance and Medieval music in college. This was about the time the Early Music movement “discovered” Sefardic music. So, I heard those renditions [of Sefardic music], which are not too authentic as it turns out, but I have them to thank for sparking a lifelong love of the genre. Also, the influential group Voice of the Turtle was based in the Cambridge/Boston area and I went to their concerts, starting about 30 years ago. KS: What was the first recording of Ladino songs you bought and when did you buy it? How much did you pay for it? JB: [It was] Music from Christian and Jewish Spain 1450-1550, also known as Weltliche Musik im Christlichen und Jüdischen Spanien, [interpreted] by Hespèrion XX, an early music ensemble, in 1976. [I] probably paid about $10 for it. It was a regular classical label
release. For my comments on the Early Music movement’s use of Sefardic repertory, see this article: www.sephardicmusic.org/InConclusion.pdf. KS: In that article, which you wrote with musicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen, you question the myth of “Medieval“ Ladino songs as not a single Sefardic melody has been traced to pre-expulsion Spain or Portugal. How did that myth originate? JB: I think the myth of “medieval” melodies began because some of the texts are ancient, so people readily assume that since the text of a song is ancient, its melody must be as well. KS: According to your website, you conducted primary research at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C.; the British Library, in London; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris; the New York Public Library; the Instituto Arias Montano, in Madrid; and at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University, in Cambridge. Did you visit those institutions personally or research them online? JB: [It was] primary research, digging around on site. I went there in person. This was before they had a complete online presence. Plus, 78s are the “stepchild” of many libraries collections, they are not well cataloged. KS: How many recordings (78s, LPs and CDs) do you own? JB: I would guess around 4,000. This includes duplicates and multiple releases of the same underlying recording. I try to collect them all. KS: In your opinion, what’s the most popular Ladino song of all times? JB: As near I can determine, it is Los Bilbilicos (The Nightingales), sung to the tune of the Shabbat table song Tzur Mishelo. Cuando el Rey Nimrod, also known as Abraham Avinu, is a close second. KS: What’s your favorite? JB: I couldn’t possibly say. I enjoy the tremendous diversity of the genre. KS: Is it safe to say that you have clips of every single Ladino song ever recorded? JB: I am aiming for that, but of course, getting every last song is going to be extremely difficult. I estimate I have more than ninety percent of the songs, on CDs, LPs and cassettes, in my collection, and originals or digital copies of roughly fifty percent of the 78s. KS: I understand you are working on a book, presumably about Ladino music. When will it be published and who is the publisher? JB: I have put work on a book on hold. Perhaps it would make a nice retirement project. And I actually much prefer web publishing, in any event, since authors can share an unlimited amount of pictures and musical selections. KS: Do you speak Ladino? JB: Sadly, no. I have some Spanish. I can follow written texts fairly well, but rely on mentors and colleagues like Professors Edwin Seroussi, Judith R. Cohen and Rivka Havassy for linguistic and ethnomusicological expertise. I am not a scholar, just a very determined discographer and collector. I see my role as collecting, digitizing and documenting these wonderful recordings.
Researchers can then use this database of recordings and information about the recordings, [such as] who recorded it, when and where, [and] when was it released, to support their amazing scholarship. KS: How can readers interested in donating or selling their Ladino recordings get in touch with you? JB: They should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Daniel Santacruz July 2014