Como la Rosa - Documentation: Vocal Performance of a 13th-15th century Ladino Song

Entrant: Sayyida Laila al-Sanna' al-Andalusiyya

Ffesty Pen Eisteddfod; Vocal Performance; 3 November, 2018



The Song

"Como la Rosa" is a Ladino song that was probably composed sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries in Spain.


The Language

Ladino is a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid that developed in Medieval Spain. It resembles medieval Castillian in grammar and pronunciation, while incorporating Hebrew vocabulary, and using the Hebrew writing system. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Ladino gradually died out as a language in Europe, though it continued to be used in Jewish communities throughout the Latin American world.


Anthropologically Dating Ladino Music

Ladino music was passed down through oral tradition, and there are no examples of written Ladino music until the 19th century. Nonetheless, we can prove with near-certainty that some Ladino songs were written before the Edict of Expulsion in 1492. The process of proving historical provenance is three-fold:

  1. Evaluating the geographic spread of the song in question. We look for songs can be found in multiple European locations. (Locations in the Americas are less useful, because of the continuing Ladino tradition in the New World.) Multiple versions of the same song are also indicative of early provenance, due to the inevitable alterations which occur over time. That said, multiple versions do reduce our certainty of the exact form the song might have taken in period.
  2. Linguistic analysis. The Ladino language underwent changes after the Expulsion, including the addition of a considerable amount of Greek and Turkish vocabulary,  grammatical changes, and in Latin America, an alteration to a more Latin American version of Spanish. Careful linguistic analysis can frequently reveal the provenance of a song. The closer to medieval Castillian, the older the song. This holds even when there are versions that include modern Ladino. The existence of the older linguistic form is strong evidence of medieval provenance.
  3. Modal analysis. There are certain musical modes, closely related to the Arabic maqamat, that were in regular use by the Jews of medieval Spain. In Arabic terms, the most common Jewish maqamat were Nahawand (similar to a natural or harmonic minor), Hijaz (a mode strongly associated with Arabic and Jewish music, structured like a harmonic minor that starts from the 5th of the scale), and Kurd (similar to Hijaz, but containing a quarter-tone). Other modes were only added to the Ladino repertoire in Latin America, most significantly Ajam (basically the major mode). Other Turkish and Greek modes are equally foreign to medieval Ladino. Basic analysis of the musical mode can help confirm provenance when used in conjunction with the first two criteria.

In the introduction to Nine Sephardic Songs, Israel J. Katz says:

"...a study of variants can help in estimating age, as can the use of archaic language forms. Also, outside influences will indicate a later origin -- earlier texts are less likely to include Greek, Turkish, or Arabic words. Provenance is also important. If a song is found in several widely dispersed communities, such as say, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, and Tunisia, it's probable that it could, at least in part, predate the 1492 diaspora."

Milligan's methods are good, but because he lacks a working knowledge of the maqamat system, his attempts at dating Ladino music are not as precise as mine. Modal analysis is key to successfully ascertaining whether a song was written prior to the expulsion, and if not, where it might have originated from.

Historical Analysis of "Como la Rosa"

When analyzed using the above methods, "Como la Rosa" bears all the hallmarks of a song that predates the 1492 expulsion. It is one of the most widely dispersed songs in the Ladino repertoire, appearing in nearly every location to which the Sephardic Jews migrated. Astonishingly, though the ornamentation, speed, and performance practices vary widely, the core melody and lyrics appear almost unchanged by time. The lyrics have undergone a minimal amount of geographic shift, remaining nearly the same from Turkey to Argentina. Furthermore, they retain the markers of medieval Castillian that one would expect in a pre-Expulsion Ladino song. Furthermore, a modal analysis reveals that the song is written in the maqam of Nahawand (also known as Nahawand-Hijaz), the most common maqam for medieval Sephardic music. Based on these factors, the likelihood that "Como la Rosa" was composed prior to 1492 is extremely high.


Ladino Performance Practice

Medieval Jewish and Arabic music are intimately connected. Ladino music developed in the Arabic world, during the height of Muslim rule in Al-Andalus, in Cordoba, which was the center of the Arabic music world. The music schools in Cordoba trained not only Arab musicians, but Jewish and European musicians as well. Jewish music makes use of Arabic music modes and often mimics Arabic song forms.

This interconnectivity is extremely useful to the performer of Ladino music, because although there exist no treatises on the performance Ladino music, there are extensive Arabic music treatises, contemporary with the height of Ladino music. Therefore, the best way to achieve authentic period performance practice is to study the Arabic treatises. These tend to encourage extensive and personal ornamentation, often improvisational in nature, according to the maqam in use. (Arabic maqamat infer patterns of notes, as well as scales. They are more complex than the Western idea of scales allows for.)


Performance Notes on "Como la Rosa"

"Como la Rosa" is a highly unstructured song, which is traditionally performed in a very loose style with no underlying rhythm. The phrasing is instead determined by the singer or instrumentalist performing the melody. This type of song is the most heavily ornamented style of Arabic or Ladino music. When performed with accompaniment, the singer and accompanist relate to one another through a call and response, preventing any need for coordination in phrasing.

My ornamentations and embellishments are performed improvisationally, based on period practice as laid out by medieval music theorists al-Farabi, al-Kindi, and Safi al-Din. They may include close and far Arabic trills, slides, scales, and specific groupings of 16th or 32nd notes.


Abddon, Seifed-Din Shehadeh. "Arabic Music: Samaie Farhafza Analysis." Unpublished paper, 2003.

Ehrenkreutz, Stefan. "Medieval Arabic Music Theory and Contemporary Scholarship." Arab Studies Quarterly, vol 2., no. 3, 1980, 249-265.

Haines, John. "The Arabic Style of Performing Medieval Music." Early Music, vol. 29, no. 3, 2001, 369-378.

Isgandarova, Nazila. "Music in Islamic Spiritual Care: A Review of Classical Sources." Unpublished paper.

Katz, Israel J. "Introduction." The Nico Castel Ladino Songbook. Tara Publications, 1981. Print.

Milligan, Samuel. Nine Sephardic Songs arranged for Voice and Harp. Ars Musicae Hispaniae, a division of Wings Press, 2015. Print.

Neumann, Richard J., arranger. The Nico Castel Ladino Songbook. Tara Publications, 1981. Print.

Saoud, Rabah. "The Arab Contribution to Music of the Western World." The Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilization, 2004.