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  • The Orientalized PhonographThe Mechanical Recording of Oral Jewish Tradition
  • Ido Ramati (bio)

The European project of ethnographic documentation and description of the cultural "others" experienced a profound transformation at the turn of the nineteenth century, with the appearance of the phonograph, an innovative technology that was able, for the first time, to capture sounds.1 Recording projects led by ethnographers and ethnomusicologists, usually with European institutional support, were conducted throughout the Levant, as well as other "oriental" sites. This essay examines the role that the phonograph played in early ethnographic sound recordings, focusing on a case study drawn from the realm of Jewish liturgical music as performed and recorded in Palestine in the early twentieth century. Analysis of the converging trajectories of the historical, social, and especially technological contexts of these recordings suggests a fresh perspective on the study of orientalism. Focusing attention on the technology available to scholars at the time adds an important dimension to our understanding of the power relations embedded in the ethnographic documentation of the Levant, as demonstrated by the ethnomusicological recordings made by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn.

The beginning of the twentieth century evinces a crucial encounter between the traditional Jewish system of musical notation, that is, the cantillation of Hebrew Scripture, and the first major project of ethno-graphic phonograph recordings of Hebrew speech and Jewish liturgy.2 The protagonist of this cultural drama was Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (born in Latvia, 1882; died in South Africa, 1938), a cantor, ethnomusicolo-gist, and composer, who moved to Ottoman Palestine in 1907. There he heard the sounds of oriental Jewish communities, which were very different from the ones he knew from European Jewry. He realized that [End Page 61] the Western musical notation system would not suffice to represent accurately the nuances of the "oriental" sounds (1913, 35). At his request, a phonograph was sent to him from the Royal Academy in Vienna; with this relatively new technology, which had already been put to use for ethnographic purposes in Europe and America a few years before, he was able to capture the sounds in a way that was not previously possible. As put by Idelsohn himself: "it is agreed among scholars that only with the help of the phonogram it is possible to explore the essence of the play of the non-European peoples" (1924, 3).

Idelsohn's recordings were particularly innovative in the context of Hebrew culture.3 At the beginning of the twentieth century, modern Hebrew culture was emerging out of Jewish tradition while being influenced by the cultural and ideological trends of the time. In 1911, Idelsohn began recording, with the help of his phonograph, oral readings of the Pentateuch. His findings were published, in ten volumes, under the title Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Jewish Music), between 1914 and 1932.4 This monumental work of ethnomusicological and ethnographic research immediately became influential and remains so (Seroussi 2005, 52).

Idelsohn's main thesis, based on his investigation of the recordings, was that "oriental" Jewish communities, especially the Yemenite Jews, preserved, through tradition, the authentic sounds that had been chanted by the Levites at the Temple in antiquity. Clearly, this argument reveals some aspects of an orientalist approach, since it is based on the assumption that non-Ashkenazi communities remained as they were in ancient times. As such, his conclusion has since been discarded in musicological and anthropological research, and the orientalism it exhibits has been criticized. However, his project and conclusions are still interesting from historical and cultural perspectives: when Idelsohn phonographically recorded the Eastern melodies, he brought together modern technology and a traditional cultural technique, and the way this encounter yielded his hypothesis, which indeed unveiled a particular kind of orientalism, merits a close analysis.

Several groups may be distinguished within the Jewish diaspora along the lines of their traditions, customs, vernaculars, and the countries in which they lived for centuries. To be sure, the popular classification of Jewish communities into categories like "Eastern" and "Western" or Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi misses the nuances of [End Page 62] their complex cultural interrelations and flattens the variety of details constructing such identities. For instance, the seemingly neutral category of...


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