Shira Kammen (Courtesy  Kammen)
Shira Kammen (Courtesy Kammen)

Centuries-old Sephardic music plus bawdy songs about Virgin Mary in area concerts

Bay Area friends Phoebe Rosquist and Shira Kammen were hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago when they spontaneously started singing a song they both knew from the 14th-century.

“We were looking out on one of these huge mountains and began to harmonize,” Rosquist recounted.

Phoebe Rosquist
Phoebe Rosquist (Courtesy Rosquist)

That’s how the two musical friends started down the path to founding a new ensemble that specializes in songs of the Spanish diaspora — including Jewish songs in Ladino that have been sung for more than 500 years.

They decided to call the group Aquila, which means eagle in Ladino. “We wanted to name it after something from nature,” Rosquist said, in a nod to their musical hike.

Now, Aquila is off the trail into the concert hall.

From Nov. 22 to 24, the ensemble will be performing with another early music group, Tres Hermanicas, in three Bay Area concerts titled “Roses and Almonds.” The shows in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Francisco are part of the San Francisco Early Music Society’s 2019-20 season.

The concerts will alternate between Tres Hermanicas’ specialty (Sephardic songs from when Jews inhabited the Iberian Peninsula, between the 8th and early 16th centuries) and Christian pieces from the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” (a collection of devotional, and sometimes bawdy, songs to the Virgin Mary that have survived thanks to a 13th-century compilation by a Spanish king).

“The reign of Alfonso X [of Castile] was all about scholarship and art, and his court included people who were Jewish and Muslim,” Rosquist said. “It was not strange at all for [the cultures] to be side by side.

“So the choice of mixed music for these concerts makes a lot of sense to us.”

One song is about seven ways to make eggplant.

Tres Hermanicas (which El Cerrito native Kammen also founded, about a year ago) and the recently formed Aquila are comprised of singers and instrumentalists who perform on a mix of Western and Middle Eastern instruments: vielle, recorders, saz, oud, rebec, ney, and various hand drums including darbuka and riq.

Rosquist can play the medieval bell tree and harmonium, but she’s chiefly a vocalist who will be singing the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” excerpts.

Kammen also sings, but she’s perhaps better known as a multi-instrumentalist whose specialties include bowed instruments and harps. According to her website, she has been in more than 15 musical groups, has played on a few TV and movie soundtracks, and has performed and taught all over the world — including one performance “in the elephant pit of the Jerusalem Zoo.”

Most of her career has been in the field of “early music,” which generally includes medieval times (500-1400) and the Renaissance era (1400-1600).

”In most places in the country, you might have trouble finding an audience for this kind of music, but in the Bay Area, they really show up for it,” said Rosquist, who was born in Germany to American parents. She now makes her home in Albany, California.

Although she is not Jewish, Rosquist said she really enjoys “getting into the language of Sephardic songs, the actual text,” tackling it with a Ladino dictionary.

“In the beginning, I would accept whatever translation I was given, but lately, I like to do it myself from scratch, making translations that are more literal,” she said. “The poetry is still there, but I like for people to know what these words really mean.”

Rosquist said the songs in the program are about diverse subjects — from miracles to romance to “bodily topics” — which she believes will appeal to a broad audience.

“They run the gamut from food to god,” she said. “One song is about seven ways to make eggplant.”

“Roses and Almonds” with Tres Hermanicas and Aquila

8 p.m. Nov. 22 at First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley; 4 p.m. Nov. 24 at Church of the Advent, San Francisco. $42.50-$50, students $15. (510) 528-1725

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.