Singing History in Évora

Singing History in Évora

What drew me to Évora in central Portugal was its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Roman Temple, university, and Franciscan Chapel of Bones. The houses in Évora’s old Sephardic Jewish quarter also attracted me, as I was looking to continue my research about the historical appropriation of Jewish culture and history in the tourism industry. 

One afternoon, while walking around town, I was surprised to see an enormous soundstage dominating the main plaza. Every year, Évora holds a festival called Artes à Rua (Street Arts), hosting theater productions, dance shows, and musical performers from all over the world. Onstage, a woman, who I later learned was a Catalán singer named Rusó Sala, began tuning a guitar. I snagged a bench to listen. In a lilting, eerie voice, she began to sing: “Morenika, grasyozika soz…”

I understood the lyrics – they described a dark-skinned, graceful woman – but I spoke Spanish and Portuguese well enough to know that this song was in neither language. Listening more closely, I noted some of the words’ diminutive endings and Sala’s odd pronunciation: when she sang the phrase, “El ijo del rey,” she pronounced the j-sound in a very un-Spanish, un-Portuguese manner. I realized with a start that she was singing in Ladino, a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish that I studied at Yale, spoken by Iberian Jews before, during, and after the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in 1492 and 1536. The song was “Morenika, a mi me yaman” (“They Call Me the Brunette”), a 15th-century Sephardic tune.

I returned to the plaza that night for Sala’s performance, where more than 300 chairs were filled with Évora’s residents. Illuminated by a spotlight, she began a repertoire of Ladino music. The audience’s enrapture was palpable; Sala enchanted us with exotic-sounding music, swaying as she sang, eyes shut while picking delicately at her guitar. However, this music was anything but exotic to Évora.

The depression of a Jewish mezuzah on a doorframe, removed long ago from what was once a synagogue, is one of few remaining hints of the large Sephardic community that once resided in the town almost 500 years ago. Évora contained one of Portugal’s seven Inquisition Courts, which persecuted almost 10,000 Portuguese Jews from the surrounding regions as heretics from the 16th to 18th century. In 2015, archaeologists discovered bodies of Inquisitorial victims outside the Court’s original building, which still bears the Portuguese Inquisitorial seal over its door.

Ladino is a language of diaspora. It is spoken by descendants of Sephardic Jews wishing to remember their exile from Iberia, once their homeland. Listening to such a language echoing in the modest plaza of a small town in central Portugal was surreal. As Sala sang, she reanimated Évora’s rich Jewish heritage and decried its Inquisitorial past. With the final notes of “Morenika,” the protracted history of a persecuted community – muted by the passage of time – found some semblance of closure in a language not spoken in their hometown for almost half a millennium.