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Susana Behar Levy

Florida Folklife asked our artists a series of questions to learn more about their traditions and how those traditions have impacted their lives and the lives of those around them.  Take a look at the answers we got from Susana Bahar Levy below.


What folk tradition(s) or traditional art(s) do you practice?

I am a Sephardic music singer and the traditional art form I practice is the folk music of the Sephardic Jews. I'd like to explain what the term Sephardic means and where it comes from. Photo of Susana Behar LevySephardic Jews is the general term used to refer to the descendants of the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula for many centuries and who in 1492, during The Inquisition, were forced to either convert to Christianity or go into exile. Many of them chose exile. Some went to Portugal, Italy and France (from where they were later expelled), many established communities in the Ottoman Empire, in what we know today as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Hungary, Rumania and the Balkans and yet others made their home in north Africa, mainly in Morocco and Algeria and some in Tunisia. They had left behind their material possessions but took with them their religion and their culture, their customs and traditions and of course their Spanish language, which continued to develop, in most cases independently, of the Spanish spoken in the Peninsula. Borrowing words and uses from the languages spoken in the adoptive lands, the Judeo-Spanish as we know it today, includes archaic forms of Spanish, Castilian, Galician and Portuguese with elements of Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and more recently, Italian, French and modern Spanish. The songs I sing are in Judeo-Spanish, more commonly known as Ladino, which is the language spoken by Sephardic Jews since their expulsion from Spain and reflect the lives, the customs and the poetry of my ancestors. When I talk about my art, the music I perform, I have learned it is important to provide this historical background. I feel very strongly that it not only helps the audiences appreciate the beauty in this world musical tradition, but also, it contributes to understanding the importance of preserving it for future generations.

How did you learn those traditions?

I come from a Sephardic Jewish tradition myself and my musical influences are first and foremost, familial. My first contact with this tradition, the language and the music, was through my Sephardic maternal grandparents who had immigrated to Cuba, at the beginning of the 20th century, from their home in Turkey where their Spanish ancestors had established themselves, centuries before. Their mother tongue was the Judeo-Spanish, spoken in their home and in their community and they continued to use it in their adoptive country. That is how I came in contact with the language and later on with the music. Over the years, I have immersed myself in the tradition, through the teachings I have acquired from elders in the Sephardic communities where I've lived as well as from field recordings done by several very reputable and dedicated ethnomusicologists. 

Why is it important to maintain folk traditions?

Folk traditions are part of our cultural heritage and cultural heritage has been passed down to us from our parents and grandparents and must be preserved for the benefit of all. It is critically important to preserve folk traditions in any culture; these are the treasures passed on to us by our elders. In this particular case, the Sephardic music tradition, it is very important to understand that through song and their lyrics we are preserving not only this art form, but also the history of a people. Not only are we preserving a musical tradition, one that is part of the world music community, but the information contained in this songs is a very valuable source for understanding life as it was, it is a window into the previous generations and their lives in so many different countries where the Sephardic Jews established themselves after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century but also, it is a window into today's Sephardic practices and customs. Additionally, it is important to emphasize the fact that through the preservation of this traditional music and the songs that conform it, we are contributing to the perpetuation of the language, the Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, which is an integral part of this rich culture. A language that has been spoken for over 500 years but that unfortunately, is in danger of disappearing due to the declining on the number of people that use it today. 

Last, but definitely not least, in an era of globalization, maintaining and preserving folk traditions, help us remember our very rich cultural diversity. Understanding this and keeping it present, helps develop mutual respect and renewed dialogue amongst different cultures. 

How did you first get involved with the Florida Folklife Program?

It was in 2002, but I can't remember if I was first invited to perform on the Folklife Stage at the Florida Folk Festival 50th Anniversary or interviewed by Bob Stone for the series, The Music from the Sunshine State. In either case it was the beginning of a great relationship and I'm thankful for it.

What Florida Folklife Program projects have you participated in and/or what folklife awards have you received?

In 2002, I was interviewed and recorded by folklorist Bob Stone for the Music from the Sunshine State - Radio Summaries, to be part of the Sacred Music session. Also in 2002, I was invited to perform and was part of the 'Folklife of the Eastern Mediterranean' program of that year's Folklife Stage, bringing Sephardic music to the Festival for the first time! In 2015 I received the Individual Fellowship Award in the Folk and Traditional Arts category for my work with Sephardic music. In May 2016 I was interviewed by Vanessa Navarro, Folklife Specialist at History Miami Museum for the What Makes Miami, Miami survey project in collaboration with the Florida Folklife Program. In April 2017 I was invited and performed at the first CultureFest 305 event, organized by the History Miami Museum. In May 2017 I once again was invited to perform on the Folklife Stage at the Florida Folk Festival.      

How has the Florida Folklife Program benefited you or what value does the program have?

First and foremost, the intrinsic value of the program lays in contributing to the promotion, presentation and preservation of the very rich folk traditions in our beautiful state. As an artist first but also as an attendee, we have enjoyed the Florida Folk Festival many times. One of the highlights has always been, all the amazing artists and folklorists that are presented under the Folklife tent and that we get to discover and meet. It is a treat that we have introduced many friends to, over the years. I am honored for having been featured on that stage as well as the CultureFest 305. To be able to present my music there, has helped me in my mission of making the Sephardic music tradition known and appreciated by a larger audience.

I am also thankful to the program for the recognition and support, awarding me the Individual Fellowship in 2015. That has helped me advance in the research and execution of my art, in this particular instance, allowing me to record a group of songs from the Sephardic traditions of The Balkans, which resulted on the release of my latest CD, Tapiz, available on Amazon. Furthermore, thanks to the recommendation of the department, I was invited to perform at the Rialto Theater in Atlanta, as part of the concert 'Sacred Sounds: A Celebration of the Abrahamic Faiths.'

How can the Florida Folklife Program better serve you?

I am sure there are many more ways I could benefit from the program that I still have not explored but certainly, intend to in the near future. I am certain that the Florida Folklife Program is a treasure that we, artists in the traditional arts, have. I hope I can continue this journey, exploring, performing, sharing, teaching and preserving this beautiful art, and will be able to continue to count on the help and support of the program.


To learn more about Susana Behar, visit her website at: