Voice of the Turtle, Somerville Theater, Somerville, Massechusets, USA, December 8, 2002
"The flowers appear on the earth
the time of singing is come,
and the voice of the turtle (dove)
is heard throughout the land."
-- from the Song of Songs
Voice of the Turtle's "Flames of an Ancient Fire: A Judeo-Spanish Hanukkah & 25th Anniversary Concert" was a learning experience for me -- an introduction to an unfamiliar tradition with a language barrier between me and the songs -- and although I'm not likely to become a great fan of Sephardic music, it was a pleasant evening. I walked into the Somerville Theater expecting a holiday concert -- and was not even sure of which holiday -- without context. The music, though, ranged from intriguing to absolutely spell-binding.
Voice of the Turtle consists of four people singing songs of the Sephardic Jews: the Spanish Jewish community that was expelled from Spain in 1492 and settled in many countries of Middle Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The music is both familiar and startling. The minor key and nasal clarinet sound like klezmer -- but it's not, quite. The guitar and hand-clapping rhythms sound like Spanish folk -- but it's not, quite. The spriteliness of some of the tunes sound very like modern Israeli folk-dances -- but they're not, quite. The sound of other tunes is nearly Afro-pop. But (no surprise) -- not quite. Some tunes are more medieval than others. The lyrics, Ladino language is nearly Spanish, but not quite, especially when a "Baruch Adonai" drops into the middle of it.
When the four performers of Voice of the Turtle (Judith Wachs, Derek Burrows, Jay Rosenberg, and Lisle Kulbach) appeared, the very first thing they did was teach the audience some of the songs. (And the harmonies from the audience were lovely.) They've been playing this music together for 25 years now (hence the 25th anniversary concert), and are as comfortable working together -- for example, changing the tempo during a song -- as you might expect. My companion pointed out a few ragged transitions during a medley of odes to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, but in general the level of musicianship was good.
All four sing -- and Jay Rosenberg's voice is especially pleasant -- and all four play multiple instruments. Not just two or three, either: although I didn't keep track of the numbers and didn't recognize half of the instruments, the program lists Judith Wachs as playing chalumeau, balama, saz, harp, recorder, flutes, and percussion; Derek Burrows as playing Spanish midieval bagpipe, guitar, mandolin, saz, psaltery, flutes, and percussion; Jay Rosenberg as playing 'ud, guitar, chalumeau, clarinet, cornetto, and percussion; and Lisle Kulback as playing rebec, psaltery, kamanja, memling fiddle, violin, shawm, and percussion. That's over 20 instruments, and I'm pretty sure I saw Lisle playing harp as well. With so many instruments, there were several breaks for tuning. During a long session, Judith recounted hearing Derek say to an instrument, "You've heard of eBay, haven't you?" The patter is particularly important because the songs are not in English. They tend to include just enough English in the introductions to set a mood; to provide a context about whether the song is glorifying chicken soup or a wedding, witnessing "those who have suffered from love", or remembering Spain.
The concert included a six-minute video. While it shows the members backstage and in restaurants, it also shows encounters with Sephardic audience members who sing songs in this tradition that have been passed down through their families.
One of their songs is called, "la yave" (the key) "where are the keys our ancestors carried from Spain?" Part of the video shows the group meeting a Sephardic woman who heard the song and brought a very old key to show them, given to her by her grandfather. She didn't understand the significance of the heirloom until she heard the song. And that's the point of Voice of the Turtle: these songs are heirlooms, they are context for a scattered culture. The group is both preserving and sharing an oral tradition.
My companion was singing along, from the beginning to the end, although she -- like me -- had never heard this tradition of music before. Near the end of the evening, I longed for something with English lyrics or a major scale, but that's more a result of my unfamiliarity than any fault of the performers. Voice of the Turtle introduced Sephardic music in an accessible and friendly way.
Find out more about these performers at www.voiceoftheturtle.com.