Nani, Nani (La Mujer Engañada)

Entrant: Sayyida Laila al-Sanna' al-Andalusiyya 

King & Queen's Bardic Championship; Barony of Dragonship Haven; 23 February 2019 



Detail of an angel-musician playing a Vihuela from an anonymous 16th century Iberian fresco. 


The Song

"Nani, Nani" is a Ladino song that was probably composed sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries in Spain. The melody and one stanza of lyrics appears in De Musica, a 1577 music text by Spanish theorist and historian, Francisco de Salinas.

Versions of "Nani, Nani"

There are multiple versions of the lyrics of "Nani, Nani" (known in post-expulsion Spain as "La Mujer Engañada"). I have chosen two verse-stanzas that appear in nearly every version, and which almost certainly originate prior to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion. Together, these two verses communicate a clear narrative of a new mother betrayed by marital infidelity and deception.

I did not use the verse that appears in De Musica, because it belongs farther into the narrative, and doesn't make sense without the stanzas which precede it. The lyrics I've used are documented using an anthropological dating method, explained in brief below, that I developed 15 years ago, and which is now widely accepted in the academic community.

The Language

Ladino is a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid that developed in Medieval Spain. It resembles medieval Castilian 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.

De Musica, by Francisco de Salinas

De Musica was "one of the most ambitious music-theoretical treatises of the early modern period," according to Matthew S. Royal. Published in 1577, it covered melody and rhythm in seven volumes, using popular melodies as examples throughout. It was in this context that "La Mujer Engañada" was notated - as an example of Spanish song, with no reference whatsoever to its Jewish origin. However, given the fact that Jews had been outlawed in Spain for 85 years, it's possible that its Ladino origin had long been buried.

Salinas, who is well-known for his rhythmic theory, discusses "La Mujer Engañada" as an example of a situation in which un-metered singing is permitted. He compares this style of singing to Ecclesiastical singing done during a particular part of the Ecclesiastical calendar, and to the "Italian stye." He seems blissfully unaware of the true nature of the music he discusses.

Reliability of Oral Transmission of "Nani, Nani"

Although the improvised embellishments frequently obscure and overtake the melody, the core melodic structure of the song has not changed in almost 450 years. In fact, since most Sephardic communities were unaware of the Salinas text until recently, "Nani, Nani" is an excellent case study showing the reliability of the oral transmission of Ladino music.

Anthropologically Dating Ladino Music

Ladino music was passed down through oral tradition, and there are few complete 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 that 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."

Katz'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 the Text

While we already have confirmation that "Nani, Nani" is a period Ladino song, anthropological methods are still required to confirm the lyrics. "Nani, Nani", or "La Mujer Engañada", is one of the most widely dispersed songs in the Ladino repertoire, appearing in at least fifteen locations: Argentina, the Azores, Bosnia, Cassaba, Chile, Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem, Morocco, Puerto Rico, Rhodes, Salonika, Spain, Tangier, and Tetuan.

Though the ornamentation, rhythmic structure, and performance practices vary widely, the core melody appears almost unchanged by time. The lyrics are somewhat variable according to time and place. It appears that verses were added and replaced by different diaspora communities, but a few verses were consistently present. The oldest verses retain the markers of medieval Castilian that one would expect in a pre-Expulsion Ladino song, and appear in most of the diaspora versions. See Katherine Meizel's article in eHumanista, "La Mujer Engañada: A romance in the Judeo-Spanish tradition" for a detailed analysis of the lyrical variations of the song, and an accounting of it's geographic dispersion.

Historical Analysis of the Mode

Modal analysis reveals that the song is written in the maqam of Hijaz, the second most common maqam for medieval Sephardic music, and one of the most popular Arabic maqamat in the 13th century.


Though Salinas' version is presented in Western notation, which normalizes certain microtones, it is apparent through anthropological analysis that this was merely a Westernization of a fundamentally non-Western song.

In reality, "Nani, Nani" should be sung with the use of a raised comma (approximately 1/9th of a step) on the 2nd scale degree, and a lowered comma on the 3rd scale degree, slightly reducing the size of the augmented 2nd. It is also permissible to lower either the 2nd or the 3rd scale degree by a full quarter tone during certain ornamentations, especially wailing slides or trills.


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 of medieval 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 "Nani, Nani"

"Nani, Nani" is a highly unstructured song, which is traditionally performed in a very loose style with no underlying rhythm. It is very closely related to 13th century Andalusian music, and but for the language, is almost indistinguishable from a Classical Arabic muwwal (a solo vocal improvisation on a colloquial poem). The phrasing is 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. This song, in particular, is traditionally sung with a liberal use of slides, which sound quite foreign to the Western ear. As previously mentioned, the maqam includes a raised comma (approximately 1/9th of a step) on the 2nd scale degree and a lowered comma on the 3rd scale degree, and it is permissible to lower either the 2nd or the 3rd scale degree by a full quarter tone during certain ornamentations, especially wailing slides or trills.


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Appendix A

"La Mujer Engañada" in De Musica, by Francisco de Salinas

in De Musica, by Francisco de Salinas



Appendix B

Lyrics and Translation