Arts Desk

Cantigas Chorus Connects Jewish, Latin American, and Arabic Music

diana saezOn Sunday night at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Cantigas, which bills itself as "Washington's premier Latino chorus,” will present “Connecting Hearts and Minds: Music From the Jewish, Latin American, And Arabic Traditions.” Cantigas (also known as Coral Cantigas) will be joined by Intercultural Journeys, a Philadelphia instrumental ensemble. So who are Cantigas and how will these three cultures be represented? Is this just some world-music mashup, or do these cultures have something in common? I traded emails with Diana V. Saez, Cantigas' founder and artistic director, to find out. The interview has been edited for clarity. 

Washington City Paper: When was Cantigas formed and can you tell me about what inspired its creation?

Diana V. Saez: Cantigas was formed in 1991. There were many choirs in Washington, D.C., but none was dedicated to singing repertoire from Spain and Latin America.

WCP: Is the current membership similar to last year? Is it hard to maintain a stable unit?

DVS: It's basically the same. People get in by audition. Once they are in they don't leave the group unless their work or family conditions change and won't allow them to commit anymore.

WCP: How did this upcoming March 16 program come together?

DVS: Part of the mission of Cantigas is to "unite communities through the joyful and transformative power of music." We believe in using music to create bridges of understanding between different communities. When I read Intercultural Journey's mission I saw we shared some of the same values and thought it would be cool to do something together.  As music director I also like showing the connection that exists between the different cultures. I see music as an effective way to challenge prejudice. Many people don't know that much of Spanish music has Arabic and Jewish influence, for example.  Also, the Intercultural Journey's  percussionist, Rolando Morales, is a good friend of mine from high school in Puerto Rico. He has become an outstanding performer in his own right. When I learned that he was playing with this ensemble I thought it would be great to collaborate again. Intercultural Journeys  founder is Udi Bar-David, a cellist with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. He collaborates with artists from different cultures and disciplines. This time he'll be playing with an Egyptian violinist and a Puerto Rican percussionist.

WCP: How were the compositions chosen for the program?

DVS: In Cantigas' case, I look for Spanish songs that reflect the influence of Arabic music in its music. I also added traditional Sephardic songs arranged for choir. We will sing “Durme Durme.” The Sephardim are the descendants of the Jews who were forced to leave Spain and Portugal after 1492 in order to avoid the Inquisition. The language of the Sephardim is Ladino, a combination of Spanish and Hebrew.

The challenge was to find Arabic music. It's very hard to find traditional Arabic music arranged for choir. Actually choral music is not part of many Arabic cultures. But fortunately, in the last few years some musicians have been trying to make this music accessible to musicians in this side of the world. I chose two contrasting Arabic pieces: one is a contemporary Palestinian song. The other is a traditional muwashshah: a song that originated in Southern Spain during the times of the Muslim rule. This type of song has spread around the world and is very popular throughout the Arab world. Cantigas will also perform songs from Latin America that are staples in our repertoire.

WCP: Tell me more about the repertoire.

DVS: Our choral repertoire will include songs from Latin America. One of them is “Corazon Coraza” by Cuban composer Beatriz Corona with poem by Mario Benedetti.  Another song will be a choral arrangement of “Gracias a La Vida” by Chilean composer Violeta Parra (one of the founders of the New Song Movement in Latin America).

WCP: Will Cantigas be doing any compositions with Intercultural Journeys?

DVS: Yes. We'll finish the program performing together. They will accompany us in the last three pieces: "Erev Shel Shoshanim" (an Israeli love song), "Lammaa Badaa Yatathannaa"(traditional Arabic song) and "Primavera Porteña" (by Astor Piazzolla, Argentinean composer).

“Connecting Hearts And Minds: Music From the Jewish, Latin American, And Arabic Traditions” takes place 7 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanuel, 10101 Connecticut Ave., Kensington. A pre-concert lecture takes place at 6 p.m. $15, students; $20-$25, adults.

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  • Elisheva Nechushtan

    Bravo! It sounds like Angels voices!

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