Every once in a while, an unlikely compilation of little-known music finds first-class champions and results in a treasure trove of art that is enlightening in itself and illuminating to what has preceded and followed.
That said, the pride and absolute joy of these tracks is the artistry and obvious passion for the work by countertenor José Lemos. His supple instrument, beautifully shaped vowels (“Durme, durme” text that features every mother’s dream for her son: “you will learn the law”), near rhapsodic incantations (“Nani, nani”) and bravura flashes (“A la una”—a lighthearted take on “When I went off to war”) combine to produce a never-ending stream of vocal excellence.
His able accompanists include Brio founder, Steve Rosenberg whose recorder and guitar interventions add depth and colour, percussionist Danny Mallon (employing a vast array of all things hit and shaken—don’t miss the voice and castanet, surprise-ending tale of an ex-pat Spaniard’s return home, “Una tarde de verano”), Mary Anne Ballard, notably coaxing a convincing foundation from the bass viola da gamba and Larry Lipkis—particularly his special contributions on the viol and gemshorn (a medieval flute with a sharply tapered conical bore).
The repertoire has been cobbled together by scholars and musicologists none of whom are certain where this music of Sephardic Jews originated. (Zachary Wilder’s informative notes give the background.) Largely an aural, rote-based tradition with characteristic end-of-phrase descending half-steps, the melodies easily engage the ear and occasionally foreshadow the twentieth century troubadours (“Los caminos de Sirkedji has more than a passing resemblance to “Scarborough Fair”; the famous opening guitar/banjo “competition” in Deliverance has a close ally as “Van y vienen” lifts off and generates two minutes of instrumental bliss).
Save the intellectual verification for another day and savour a centuries old array of the trials and tribulations of family life. JWR