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Flamenco’s Unexpected Jewish Roots

On a stormy March evening, plaintive and edgy “aye ayes” emerge from the throat of a female flamenco singer, beckoning the New York audience to attention. Leilah Broukhim, a dancer, first sits beside the singer and guitarist, clapping her palms to the punchy rhythms. Then, without an obvious cue, Broukhim rises to perform a 10-minute improvised flamenco dance, moving from one exacting pose to the next, punctuated by foot stomps, finger manipulations, skirt swooshes and head tosses. The three artists are completely dependent on each other for the energy and direction of their ensemble performance.

The singer’s initial call, known as a complaint, is used to synchronize pitch with the musicians. The tuning device, perhaps a practical application, is remarkable in its longing mournful tones, which bear an unmistakable kinship to the Muslim call to prayer.

It stands to reason that flamenco — the national dance, music and pride of Spain — would have its roots in Islam, given the Iberian Peninsula’s eight-century domination by Islamic Arab governments (from 800 AD to 1500 AD). Continue listening, however, and the minor chords and rhythms evoke a particularly expressive Kol Nidre or Sephardic music sung in Ladino, a Romance language influenced by Spanish and Aramaic. It turns out, in fact, that flamenco is a melding of Jewish, Arab and Roma traditions. Today Broukhim is well aware of the Jewish inflections in Flamenco, the dance she has practiced for the last 14 years––ever since her New York City high-school Spanish teacher brought her to a performance. “It was so expressive!” Broukhim recalls. “It was so unfamiliar and theatrical and inspiring. It really moved me.”

It in fact moved Broukhim to Spain, where she has lived and danced for the past 10 years. In that time, she learned that flamenco began as a folk tradition in the region of Spain known as Andalusia. The highly collaborative mix of dance, guitar and, eventually, lyric song originated primarily in the homes of Sephardic Jews and Arab Muslims in the 15th century, according to Meira Goldberg, a dance historian and flamenco teacher based in New York City. Those of Moorish descent brought a legacy of dance and choreography, Goldberg explains, “and they expressed their feelings with the voice breakings and adornments used when they sang from the Koran.”

In addition to the underlying flamenco sounds, many of which are derived from Jewish song, there are a few palos — flamenco styles characterized by unique rhythms, melodies and motifs — that can be linked directly to Sephardic folklore. In the late 1700s, the Roma (still called gypsies by many in Spain) were first thought to have contributed to flamenco culture by interpreting the existing tradition through their own experience and expertise. And because the Roma were cut off from nearly all professions except for bullfighting and flamenco, Goldberg says, they infused their dance with gestures and foot rhythms that conjured the toreador and his charging bulls.

When Broukhim, a Sephardic Jew of Persian descent, arrived in Spain, she was so deeply immersed in flamenco culture — its music, intensity and highly social community — that she didn’t think much about the Jewish connection. Then, a few years ago, a writer asked if she would participate in a promotional video for Casa Sefarad-Israel, a Madrid-based nonprofit studying the legacy of Sephardic culture in Spain and fostering a better understanding of Jewish culture there.

While filming the piece, Broukhim’s interest was piqued, and she began to research the history of Spanish Jews as well as her own ancestors. “It woke up this whole connection and it’s how I got on my path,” says Broukhim, whose family, expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century, made its way to what is now modern-day Iran. Her father moved to the United States in 1963 (her mother is Italian) and, as Broukhim sees it, she is completing the family’s historic, cultural and geographic circle by returning to Spain once again.

Broukhim will direct and dance an interpretation of this journey on November 4th at New York’s 92nd St. Y, in “Traces: The Story of a Sephardic Woman Through Time.” Broukhim says her family’s tale and struggle have allowed her to see Spain as much more than the birthplace and center of flamenco. “Now I kind of feel the connection. I do feel my ancestors came from here. There’s a reason why I’m here.”