"Judaica" Article

Folk Music, by A. Shiloach - Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed.

[Sub-section of main article entitled "Jewish Music"] 


It is today acknowledged that differences between folk music and art music, and what is called "popular music," are not clearly defined. However, major features are usually noted as characteristic of folk music. It is transmitted orally from mouth to ear and learned through listening rather than through written notated documents. This suggests that the music can change when passed from one individual to another depending on the memory and creative power of the performer and the measure of acceptance in the performer's community. Gifted individuals who gave of the fruits of their poetical and musical talents frequently borrowed familiar pre-existing melodies and made new songs out of them. In many cases the names of the composers were forgotten and the compositions became anonymous. Folk song, primarily rural in origin, is functional, meaning that it is associated with other activities; yet it also exists in cultures in which there is a technically more sophisticated urban musical tradition and where this cultivated music is essentially the art of a small social elite.

As a whole, these and other characteristics are hardly applicable to the complex web of Jewish musical traditions, which have been rooted in many and diverse cultures through the long years of dispersion where alien traditions impinged on Jews wherever they resided. Viewed as a unit they represent a multiplicity of idioms, simple and more sophisticated musical styles in which the sacred and secular overlap. Considered separately, each tradition has numerous forms of expression, being partly folkloristic in character and partly drawing upon the sophisticated art of the surrounding environment. Thus, for instance, non-Jewish art music from the surrounding culture insinuates itself into the Oriental synagogues and other forms through the the art music spread through the areas under Islamic control, which in itself, despite its considerable sophistication, is based on oral transmission.

Another characteristic that sets Jewish musical traditions apart from other musical traditions is the use of Hebrew as a common language and the recourse to the same corpus of sacred classical texts for reading from biblical books and the liturgy. This has created a special blend of highly varied musical lore transmitted orally from generation to generation and written textual lore that operates as a unifying and stabilizing factor.

Although Hebrew is dominant and shared by all Jews in the religious hymns enhancing events marking the cycle of life and the Jewish year, extra-synagogal music displays a complex and diversified idiomatic picture in both language and music.

Celebrations of circumcision, the bar mitzvah, and weddings usually consist of two musical parts: the distinctly paraliturgical, which is almost indistinguishable from synagogue music, and what may include an almost unlimited use of secular music from the surrounding society, including instrumental accompaniment, despite the fact that musical instruments continue to be banned inside the synagogue. The accompaniment is often no more sophisticated than simple rhythm instruments but professional singing and playing is often included. One famous example out of many instrumental entertainers is that of the klezmerim. This represents a purely oral tradition, with its practitioners true professionals who, although of relatively low social status, are often given an important place in social life and public events.

The musical manifestations found in the various Jewish communities that have exclusively or predominantly folk elements are associated with the aforementioned events; at other times it focuses on the private life of the individual. There are times when the singing has a defined function, but it may also be entirely dissociated from any specific happening. Individuals may express themselves in lyrical song even if there is no apparent relation between the song and whatever evoked the urge to sing. The themes and contents of the songs are as extensive as the range of occasions that inspire them. Generally speaking they encompass events associated with (1) the Jewish calendar such as Sabbath songs (zemirot), the Purim plays, the Passover Seder and the like; (2) general festive gatherings such as the songs of hillulot or pilgrimage to the tombs of saints. Among those whose holiness has been recognized by the entire nation the outstanding figure is certainly Simeon bar Yohai, whose grave at Meron attracts great masses from all Jewish groups. One can add to this category the celebrations of the Maimuna by the Moroccans and the Seherane by the Kurds; (3) The third category and undoubtedly the richest concerns the life cycle. A person's lifetime, from birth to death, is filled with a succession of outstanding occasions, many of which are celebrated in song and dance. A new element enters the scene here, one that is totally nonexistent in synagogue singing: women take part and even create texts that are performed in suitable circumstances and on occasions have unique reference to their world, some being considered their exclusive province, such as cradle songs and dirges (see below).


Women's Folk Music

The phenomenon of women singing for other women on various occasions was undoubtedly a way of circumventing restrictions engendered by religious and social bias that limited their public musical activities and their participation in synagogue rituals. Women are also circumscribed by the talmudic injunction to the effect that "hearing a woman's voice is an abomination," which was interpreted as a prohibition against their singing in public. In his extensive response to the Jews of Aleppo concerning the lawfulness of music, Maimonides, the prominent religious authority, included among the major prohibitions "Listening to the singing and playing of a woman."

All this seems to have encouraged the emergence and crystallization of songs with unique values and characteristics, as women singing for other women became a way of getting around these prohibitions. In their songs women can express their world of experiences and the Jewish and human values they uphold. The songs seem to have been a form of release through which they could express – even if only to themselves – those experiences and aspects of their lives that were special. They also often included Jewish ethical instructions, reaction to public and political events, as well as various communal happenings.

The songs' texts have a broad thematic scope: comments on important historical and current events; songs of religious character, which are in the form of translations or paraphrases of biblical stories; the life cycle from birth to death with special emphasis on the wedding and its colorful attendant ceremonies; lyrical songs that accompany a woman when she is alone, when doing housework, when remembering the bitter experiences in her life, her troubles, complaints, and dreams, whether in a lullaby or a song of love or jealousy. There are also humorous and satiric songs like the songs of curses ostensibly meant to entertain women by introducing a light atmosphere.

With few exceptions, women's songs are in the language and Jewish idiom spoken locally. Their singing falls within the realm of oral tradition and consequently their songs are usually not fixed in permanent form so that gifted women can exhibit their creative ability by adding verses of their own or by rearranging the material they include in their repertoires.

The songs are sung in public on occasions of a folk nature either by a group of women or by one individual with a good voice. There are also professional performances by female musicians who are specialists in specific genres; particularly notable is the performance of funeral laments and dirges, which are considered the province of women who excel as keeners. Professional performances, much like of those of men, are given by one or two specialists – the main singer and her "assistant." They are usually performed in responsorial form and the women accompany themselves on the most characteristically feminine instrument, the frame drum. This phenomenon goes back to ancient times; one finds such instances in biblical stories like that of Miriam the prophetess in the Book of Exodus.

There are also female ensembles that enhanced women festivities such as the professional singers called tañaderas (drummers). This is a group of three women who sing and drum and are well versed not only in the musical repertoire but in all the customs. Another, larger all-female ensembles is the daqqaqat (drummers) in Baghdad, which at one time was a Jewish ensemble comprising four to five women beating various drums (frame drum, kettle drums, two-headed drum). The leader of the band was noted for her fine voice and, being a talented performer, she was the soloist.

From a musical standpoint, are the women's songs different from those of the men? Reflecting on the sexual aspect in the development of music, the prominent musicologist C. Sachs wrote in The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: "If singing is indeed an activity of all our being, sex, the strongest difference between human-beings must have a decisive influence on musical style … woman's influence was particularly strong in shaping the structure of melody" (1943). Another great figure, composer Bela Bartok, who studied the folk songs of Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere, noted in his "Essay on the Collecting of Folk Music" (1976) the uniqueness and archaic nature of women's singing. He was of the opinion that an ancient stratum of song was reproduced therein because in the traditional societies they had little contact with the external world.

In recent decades, great interest in the subject has arisen, particularly in the United States and Canada, with deepening focus on gender as an analytical category in music research. In the realm of Jewish music, one should note in this respect Ellen Koskoff 's article: "The Sound of a Woman's Voice: Gender and Music in a New York Hasidic Community," which has been included in the collection essays of which she is the editor: Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective (1989).

In this context, it would be interesting to briefly draw attention to the phenomenon of the emergence of a professional class of talented Jewish women musicians by the beginning of the 20th century. These artists gained prominince and recognition as outstanding vocalists and creative artists in Muslim societies in a broad cultural region extending from Central Asia to the major centers of North Africa.


[Amnon Shiloach]


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