Tangier Songbooks: Nahón & Cohen, Pomeroy & Paloma

TALIM Nahon music
Music image from the Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council

This is how we announced last Friday's event:

A handwritten songbook by Alia Isaac Cohen from 1934 Tangier and a recording from 1929 of two women from Tangier singing traditional ballads and speaking in Haketía will be at the core of the discussion between Dr. Hilary Pomeroy (University College London) and Vanessa Paloma Elbaz (INALCO – Sorbonne Paris Cité).

Eighty years ago Alia Isaac Cohen dated her songbook filled with Romances (Ballads) from the oral tradition. Dr. Pomeroy published an edition and commentary of her songbook in 2005, where she explores the connections that this Moroccan Tangerine matriarch had with the literary tradition from medieval and renaissance Europe.

In 1929, Zarita Nahón recorded Simi Nahón de Toledano in New York while a student of Franz Boas. This recording has been archived at Indiana University’s Archive of Traditional Music. Vanessa Paloma Elbaz (who finished her graduate work in Indiana in 1996) discovered during her research of the Romances of Northern Morocco that her alma mater housed this historic archive and secured a copy to bring back to Morocco to form part of KHOYA: Sound Archive of Jewish Morocco. This recording has never been heard publicly in Morocco and is a rare glimpse into the musical sound of Jewish women from the early twentieth century.

These two scholars will present the written and recorded traces of the Ballads from Tangier and discuss their similarities and differences.

For an eclectic group of scholars and the culturally curious, Hilary Pomeroy on Alia Isaac Cohen and Vanessa Paloma on Zarita Nahón took us through this world of Jews uprooted from Christian Spain, finding refuge in Muslim Morocco, and handing down traditional songs that still evoke the ancient Sephardic homeland of Toledo and Granada.

TALIM Paloma Pomeroy

Thanks to schools like the Alliance Israelite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literate women like Cohen and Nahón took to transcribing the ballads or romances.  Even though many were Christian in origin, they told great stories: war, betrayal, adultery, and the accompanying human emotions.  Some were even sung as lullabies; the cadence was the thing, not the lyrics about adulterous, murderous women!

Surviving over the centuries thanks also to their use in specific religious ceremonies or festivals (though some rabbis tried to keep the more racy ballads out of the synagogue), transmission to the modern age was helped enormously by women like Cohen and Nahón.  Zarita Nahón, a Tangier native who studied philology at Columbia, had direct links to the Jewish intelligentsia of the city, whose education and knowledge of foreign languages had made them the ideal dragoman or interpreter/go-between for generations of diplomats in Morocco's diplomatic capital.

Using the metal tube recording technology of the time, Nahón's work resides at Indiana University.  The audience heard several examples.

Vanessa Paloma continues the work of safeguarding this oral tradition, citing her work with elderly women whose faulty memories are suddenly brought into clear focus on hearing Vanessa break into song.  Hilary Pomeroy cited another who recalled "there was always singing; we sang from dawn to dusk."

Making the link with our own lead soldier display from the Malcolm Forbes collection, Hilary Pomeroy spoke of the ballad by Moroccan Jews rejoicing at the death of Don Sebastian, King of Portugal in Morocco's Battle of the Three Kings.  His defeat and death meant that the Jews and Muslims in Morocco would not be forced to convert to Christianity.

Gerald Loftus, text; Mohammed Jadidi, photo

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.