Fresh from a PhD in composition & ethnomusicology from Bar Ilan University in Israel, composer, lecturer and researcher Ariel Lazarus heard his calling to music when he visited his grandparents in Gibraltar as a child, and listened to his late grandfather Abraham Beniso, the synagogue cantor: “He was the only one who fully understood my intention to turn music into a career and advised me to go for it, while others were sceptical about me being able to make a living on it.”

He showed them with a MA in guitar and composition from the Oklahoma City University, followed by pioneering PhD research on liturgical tunes sung in Gibraltar, compared to other strong Sephardic hubs in Europe, like Amsterdam and London, and North Africa, where a large chunk of the local Jewish community is from.

He transcribed in music the recordings of his late grandfather donated to Israel’s National Sound Archives and found how some melodies are unique to Gibraltar, either preserved through isolation, or permutated through alien influence, with a westernised edge to it that isn’t of course present in most of the north African Sephardi diaspora.

“We must keep in mind how this is strictly an oral tradition, which is never noted down, so it is subject to change in time. Naturally, every place has its own footprint, while it remains clear that all traditions proceed from the same source, but we can isolate motifs attached to Gibraltar only. I could tell the story of the local Gibraltar community, a bridge between Africa and Europe, through the evolution of its musical modes.”

Because of the constraints of PhD investigation, he focused only on tunes proper of the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples known as Bein ha-Metzarim – literally meaning ‘between the straits’. Ariel is inviting his students and followers to pick up the research where he left it and to further and expand it, perhaps to non-liturgical music, and even to the use of Ladino and Haketia languages locally.

Ariel’s interest doesn’t stop at religious music either: his lifelong interest for Ladino tradition brought him to become the co-founder and musical director of the Israeli Ladino Orchestra, which collects and performs classical songs, and also composes new ones in this genre. Israel is enjoying a strong revival of its folk music, where Ladino, Yiddish or Mizrahi culture is sought by the descendants of Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Middle Eastern Jews respectively.

Dr Lazarus explains how, when Israel was founded, Hebrew was made official language and everyone was looking forward to the dream come true to resurrect the tongue and culture of biblical times, and drop their European ‘baggage’ with the sorrowful memories of persecution and extermination attached to it, so they educated their children in the new and the same time old values of Hebrew.

Once this was established as national identity, the grandchildren of the founders realised how rich and diverse Jewish heritage in Israel is, and understood how many different cultures converged in the making of a people, and therefore those needed to be recognised and preserved too.

some melodies are unique to Gibraltar

So, they went on a quest to recover folk music and literature, promoting them not only with the descendants, but with all Jews whose linguistic heritage may be watered down by the practical pressures of being conversant in the language(s) of the countries they live in, as well in international English, besides liturgical Hebrew.

The renewed interest doesn’t stop to the homeland or the diaspora though: Ariel tells how he is booked this autumn for a series of concerts in New Mexico, where the descendants of the conquistadores are claiming their roots back to the Conversos embarked on Columbus’s ships, and are becoming aware of the variety of old Spanish spoken by their ancestors, nowadays more and more dwindling in everyday conversation, but well preserved in poetry and lyrics.

Ariel has visited Gibraltar regularly since his childhood – usually keeping a low profile, because it is mostly family time for him – but he first grabbed the local media attention fifteen years ago when he participated in the Tercentenary celebrations. Then, he joined his grandfather in commemorating the date that marked the beginning of the return to Gibraltar of Jews exiled to Northern Africa over two centuries earlier.

Back in Gibraltar last July, Dr Lazarus held a workshop to perform some of his original music and illustrate his research – and he hopes to return soon with his ensemble to play a full concert.

His fifteen-piece orchestra aims to promote Ladino songs while entertaining. It features western and eastern instruments, mainly strings like viola, violin, cello and guitar, but also flute and piano, with the important addition of oud, Turkish violin, qanun and middle-eastern drums – and of course vocals, whether by Ariel himself, or by Okaniwa Yayoi: “She is Japanese and studied Ladino music in Tokyo before moving to Israel to further her studies and eventually join us.”

The interest is genuine and attracts musicians from far and wide: “For example our pianist Julián Jaramillo is from Colombia and other musicians in the orchestra where/are his own students.”

Dr Lazarus reflects on how the internet killed the record industry with its making music readily available worldwide for free, forcing musicians to find alternative ways to make a living, such as live performances with virtuoso displays, and fusion that goes beyond the surface-scratcher that contemporary pop music is.

the internet killed the record industry

“Boundaries between genres are knocked down and one needs to be conversant in classical, folk and pop music, and also dig them deeper to connect to the source, whether their own heritage or influences of the country they live in. Technology has made it possible for everyone to produce and distribute music using a virtual recording studio and social media platforms, so real musicians must find their original voice to stand out of the crowd and made themselves memorable.”

Excerpts from Ariel Lazarus’s albums are available on YouTube, Bandcamp and his official website ArielLazarus.com that also publishes news on his projects and concert dates.