Reviving Traditional Sephardi Music in Turkey

July 19, 2016 | Ezgi Üstündağ
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Riding a wave of local interest in the music of Turkish minority groups, the Istanbul-based band Sefarad began performing updated versions of Ladino folk songs—some in the original language and some translated into Turkish—achieving no small degree of commercial success. But the moment did not last, and in 2007 Sefarad broke up, only four years after it released its first album. Ezgi Üstündağ provides some historical context:

[Following its esablishment in 1924, the Republic of Turkey] set out to build a national culture, to which music was critical. The state banned Ottoman and religious music, while, [in the words of one historian], limiting conservatories to teaching government-controlled “Westernized” and “Turkified” folk music. Radio stations exclusively played Western and government-approved folk music in these early decades. . . .

Sephardi Jews . . . were still made to feel like guests rather than natural-born citizens in the early years of the republic; often, when a Jew appealed the denial of his request to serve in the military or bureaucracy, the authorities would remind him that his kin “owed a debt” to the Turkish people. . . .

Language became another serious point of contention. While the constitution allowed Jews to educate their children in Hebrew and Ladino, Hebrew [continued to be used for ritual and scholarly purposes] and Ladino was rarely encountered outside the home. . . . . [In practice], Jewish community leaders [began] to educate their children in Turkish for the first time in nearly 500 years. . . . By the 1960s, Turkish had become the mother tongue of most of the nation’s Jews.

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