Vanessa Paloma & the Spirit of Moroccan Jews

TALIM Vanessa Paloma 1
Vanessa Paloma is a singer, performer, scholar and writer specializing in Judeo-Spanish women’s songs and their role in Sephardic communities.  Internationally known for this repertoire, she has performed and lectured on five continents.  A current Research Associate of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, Paloma was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Morocco during 2007-2008.

From her bio.  Official website, and blog.

You don't just get a solo concert, voice and harp, when Vanessa Paloma comes to Tangier.  Vanessa, who spent her Fulbright year here, just around the corner from the Legation, comes home to Tangier, and her loyal following in this city reciprocates by coming in numbers to her concert.  Last Thursday was no exception, despite several other competing cultural events.


TALIM Vanessa 6

Photo by Nathan Evans

Vanessa Paloma's homecoming is more than just revisting her old haunts.  It's a matter of roots: her mother's family, the Colombian side of this very international family, came to Latin America via Tetouan, Tangier's neighbor at the edge of the Rif Mountains.  In other words, Vanessa's work on the music of Morocco's Jewish diaspora is personal.  One of her stories, La Mantilla, traces the story of a shawl brought from Tetouan to Bogotà by her great-great-grandmother.


Her latest book, "The Mountain, the Desert, and the Pomegranate: Stories from Morocco and Beyond" (Gaon Books), provided material for her readings, which bracketed her renditions of often soulful Sephardic songs.  We see that an image of Drouj Merican (the American Steps leading up to the Legation) features in one of her Tangier-based stories.

Vanessa Paloma is not your typical academic, but she is nevertheless a serious scholar of the rich musical tradition of the Jews of Andalusia and the Sephardic diaspora, especially the centuries spent in Morocco, where Jews expelled from Reconquista Spain found refuge.  Here's her introduction to a 2009 paper on the Judeo-Spanish musical tradition in Morocco:

The Judeo-Spanish Romancero song tradition found a hospitable dwelling in
the Jewish communities of Northern Morocco.  The proximity between Spain and
Morocco led to a constant cultural, economic and political exchange across the Strait of Gibraltar.  This maritime frontier, which today is experienced as a formidable barrier for those Moroccans without a visa, was confronted with much more ease and openness in centuries past.  The very fact that each population establishes almost daily visual contact with the land across the Strait determines the continuous presence in the imaginary realm as well as the palpable reality of their contiguity.  A sustained exchange of music and ideas migrated along with commercial goods and diplomatic missions earlier than the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  I like to think of this aqueous frontier as a fluid and live center of intercultural, interreligious and interlingual encounters.

Vanessa's family traversed this aqueous frontier on several occasions (fleeing Spain, emigrating to the New World, then her own "return" to Morocco for her studies and now, as the wife and mother of Jews born in Morocco).  She knows of what she writes – and sings.  It's hard to get more authentic scholarship than that.

Gerald Loftus

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