Mixing Musics: Turkish Jewry and
the Urban Landscape of a Sacred
By Maureen Jackson

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013, 254 pp. Print.

Reviewed by Judith R. Cohen

The musical world of the Maftirim is not one that immediately comes to mind for most people who hear the phrase ‘Sephardic music'—it is a religious repertoire, performed in almost all circumstances by men, and sung in Hebrew rather than Judeo-Spanish. Not part of the world music ‘scene', it is unlikely to attract the sort of modifiers frequently found in connection with performers of Ladino songs—"passionate", "exotic", "medieval gems" and so on. So what explains a book based on Maftirim as such a fascinating, indeed, absorbing read?

Maftirim songs are a sort of "paraliturgical ‘sacred suite'", in which the Hebrew poetic texts are sung, without instrumental accompaniment, to music in one makam (musical mode) (1).  This music is in the style of the Ottoman court music suite, or fasıl, whether using specific melodies as contrafacta or as new compositions in this style (7-9). Traditionally Maftirim songs were sung in the early morning, before the Saturday prayer services, but are now sung later in the day to attract more community members (2).

Jackson gracefully weaves together history, politics, ethnography, and her own reflections, so that the audience ultimately feels quite at home in a textually portrayed world that most readers will not know first-hand, or, in the case of those who are familiar, will likely gain new insights and perspectives. The final years of the Ottoman Empire, the first years of the Turkish Republic, and up to the early 2000s, are deftly evoked through concise accounts of historical and political events, and generously cited excerpts from both written documentation and the author's own interviews with a wide variety of people.

Chapter 1, "Mapping Ottoman Music-Making," moves between present and past, nationalism and culture, and communities and personalities in religious and secular musical spheres. It offers challenges to gendered perspectives, comparisons between publically staged and community-secured venues, and reflections on transmission and textualization. Personalities more and less familiar to those knowledgeable about Sephardic music appear in their socio-cultural and historical contexts. We meet Sephardic liturgical singers expert in not only Turkish classical music, but also in Armenian church music, or the music of the Mevlevi Order's ‘whirling dervishes'— who, it turns out, sometimes attended maftirim sessions, especially in Edirne, and even sometimes found synagogues to be a musical refuge from anti-religious legislation (9, 31; 62-3).  This chapter also provides perspectives on rural to urban migration, the privileging of European art forms, the alafranga (European) and alaturka (Turkish) aesthetics, philosophies and state policies as well as the continuity and transmission of Ottoman art forms in often unexpected circumstances.

Chapter 2, "A Musical Landscape in Flux", includes information about Jews in the early recording industry and, sometimes, recordings that included both Jewish and non-Jewish artists (56-7). Maftirim were often involved in non-Jewish musical activities, while Turkish music theorists such as Rauf Yekta Bey visited synagogues to hear the legendary Isaac Algazi sing (60). The circumstances of Algazi's and Samuel Benaroya's emigration from Turkey are discussed, as are the careers of Mıserlı İbrahim Efendi and Hayim Moşe Becerano, who remained in Turkey (63-70). We also learn of "political and Jewish escapees from Nazi Germany" and their role in the development of music in Turkey on the official, state-supported level (74). This, explains Jackson, coincided with the loss of Turkish Jewish and other minority artists who, too often, as she points out, have been discussed separately in the literature (76).

I had previously read an earlier version of Chapter 3, "The Girl in the Tree: Gender and Sacred Song", and returned to it here with interest in its place within this volume. It is a particularly engaging story that offers some challenges to gender dichotomy narratives, and a story that I will not spoil for readers by summarizing here. Besides the story of Jewish and Turkish music in Janti Behar's life, we learn about popular entertainment venues in Balat, Fener, Eyüp, and Jewish families who went to hear Turkish art music in a gazino on Shabbat, and the legendary Pierre Loti music café as a favorite place for wedding proposals (99). Jackson reflects that several older Sephardic women may have had, or even still possess, the key to reconstructing lost aspects of the Maftirim repertoire, and I am curious about why she does not include Judith, the daughter of the Edirne-to-Seattle hazan Samuel Benaroya, in this chapter rather than leaving her to the end of the book (172-4).

Chapter 4,  "Staging Harmony, Guarding Community", discusses the role of Maftirim in multi-religious state-sponsored concerts, and issues around public and private music spaces, also discussed in Chapter 1. In Chapter 5, "Into the Future: Texts, Technologies and Tradition", the author explores the relationship between orality and textuality, master-apprentice relations, and the role of the congregation (or other types of audience/public). Jackson's description of how "informed receptivity and participation" become essential to performance and transmission is apt and can be applied to many other traditions (156). Several comments from the author's interviewees are revealing: "Everybody knew the language—the makam…", "... they don't recognize it, don't know whether its presence or absence matters…." (156); "they don't say ‘bravo' any more" (157). More than one points out that young Jewish Turkish singers no longer know makam, they don't know Turkish classical music and so, as one says "I can't teach young people" (161). In this chapter Jackson also discusses projects of transcription and publication of the Maftirim repertoire along with the large-scale 2009 publication, and how, depending on its reception, it may end up fulfilling different purposes.

In the Epilogue, Jackson states that she has "three central arguments": (1) the circulation and role of late Ottoman Turkish Jewish musicians; (2) the performance of Maftirim songs today reflecting an interest in Sephardic heritage but also bringing out the Ottoman and Hebrew art music culture which managed to thrive in the first decade of the Turkish Republic; and (3) a shift from orality to textuality (170-1). I am not entirely sure the last is one of the most compelling arguments of the book: while its role in this tradition is told perceptively, the shift from orality to textuality, and combinations of both, is neither a new idea nor specific to this culture. I am even less sure of Jackson's statement "…on the broadest level, this book has written against a cultural narrative of decline that typically parallels the numerical decline of minorities such as Turkish Jewry crossing the empire-nation divide"(170). But has it really declined? It has indeed challenged several stereotypes, and certainly has, as the author says, revealed a "musical cross-pollination more complex and sustained than previously believed" (170). In terms of a "narrative of decline " however, I think the author has actually done the opposite, though I recognize that current scholarship avoids what Bohlman called, back in the 1980s, the "necrological stance" (Bohlman 128). Why can we not call a spade a spade? Why do we insist on this whitewashing of decline, dressing it up as metamorphosis?

The author includes several pertinent black and white photographs, as well as a glossary, discography, and index. The notes are copious and often interesting in and of themselves—some could have even been integrated into the main text. The discography is welcome, but perhaps it would be helpful to include one or two short melodic transcriptions and/or diagrams illustrating the discussions of makam, and a rhythmic transcription illustrating a usul, or how one of these rhythmic sequences would be tapped on the thighs or knees in the evocative image that appears frequently in the book. Perhaps a companion, password-protected website, similar to others which accompany ethnomusicology volumes, could be provided, or even links to relevant online performances.

All told, this is an engrossing, informative and thought-provoking volume that I enjoyed, learned from, and recommend. 


Bohlman, Philip. The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Dr. Judith R. Cohen is an ethnomusicologist, music instructor and performer at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800