The Man with the Nagra, 2013
Written and Directed by: Yaala Levi Zimmerman, Produced by: Yaala Levi Zimmerman and Johanna Levi, Language: Hebrew and Italian with English subtitles
The Man with the Nagra, narrates the life and work of Leo Levi, a prominent Italian intellectual, educator and ethnomusicologist who settled in Israel in 1936. The film combines Levi’s life story with that of the small community of the “Italkim”, his political work as a religious Zionist with his activity as a writer and ethnomusicologist to whom we owe the largest collection of Italian cantorial music preserved both at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Working in the same period and around the same areas with Alan Lomax, Levi recorded thousands of liturgical segments, tracing a sound cartography that only today begins to be fully appreciated. Beside providing an essential research tool to scholars, the Leo Levi collection continues to inspire contemporary musicians and cantors. Among many who have drawn on his recording are Enrico Fink, Yotam Haber and Dan Kaufman.
Leo Levi (1912-1982 ) was the first scholar to devote research to the Italian Jewish oral musical traditions. However, his role in the fired of Jewish ethnomusicology, and in particular in the development of ethnomusicology in Italy, remains to be fully recognized. The grandson of a rabbi, he was an uomo di lettere of wide-ranging interests. His plan to devote a dissertation to the Italian synagogue song was frustrated by the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Italy. During his student years in Turin, he was arrested twice and charged with engaging in subversive activities. A fervent Zionist, he promptly changed his specialization to botany and settled in Palestine in 1936.
Since the Emancipation Edict of 1848, Italian Jewry had- perhaps unconsciously- overlooked its own heritage, striving to integrate with Italy’s mainstream culture. Levi’s interest must then be seen as groundbreaking, as it proved to be at the end of World War II, when traditional Jewish culture seemed forever lost. He immediately returned to Italy where he established firm relations with the main figures in ethnomusicology, such as Giorgio Nataletti, director of the newly founded (1948) Centro Nazionale Studi di Musica Popolare (CNSMP, now Archivi di Etnomusicologia) of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. A socialist, Levi identified with the interest for the “music of the people” that permeated the new wave of Marxist-oriented Italian culture of the time. Deeply attached to tradition and to the practice of Judaism, he became the first Italian scholar to research a broad spectrum of liturgical musical traditions, Jewish and Christian. Levi became part of the ethnographic team of the CNSMP and was granted access to the facilities of the RAI-Italian National Radio as a partner in the documentation of Italy’s folklore. Between 1954 and 1959 he contacted almost fifty informants, professional chazzanim (synagogue cantors) and other culture-bearers. In over eighty recording sessions, he collected seventy-two audio reels, for a total of some 1000 recorded items. These recordings constitute testimony- in most cases, the only account- to twenty-seven liturgical traditions preserved in the Jewish communities of over twenty Italian cities. RAI personnel inventoried each session following Levi’s notes, and the recordings were subsequently kept at the CNSMP. As soon as the National Sound Archives were founded in Jerusalem (1964), Levi obtained a copy of the Rome reels and worked as Research Fellow at the Jewish Music Research Centre.
Throughout the 1960s, Levi also conducted an impressive amount of independent fieldwork, at times in collaboration with Italy’s leading ethnomusicologist Roberto Leydi, documenting a variety of Christian (chiefly non-Catholic) liturgical repertoires, as well as Jewish liturgical and folk songs across the Mediterranean and in central and Eastern Asia. While most of his fieldwork still needs to be assessed, the “Italian collection” has undergone recent study, as its value for the documentation of Italy’s Jewish liturgical song is unparalleled. Leo Levi’s recordings enable us to draw a picture of the country’s Jewish musical traditions prior to their loss: a musical memory derived from its bearers.
Written by Francesco Spagnolo for the JMRC Cd Italian Jewish Musical Traditions from the Leo Levi Collection (1954-1961).
For Recordings from the Leo Levy collection, see the JMRC Cd, Italian Jewish Musical Traditions from the Leo Levi Collection (1954-1961). Two tracks of the CD are available for listening on the website of the Hebrew University Sound Archive.
Learn more about Leo Levi
A classic by Leo Levi
Traditional Jewish Music and Italian-Jewish Liturgical Traditions
Jerusalem, summer 1955, Published in: “Rassegna Mensile di Israel”, Tishri 5718, Ottobre 1957, Vol. XXIII, N. 10
What is the status of the minhaghim with regard to liturgical music and its distribution in Jewish Italy today? The goal of this paper is, first and foremost, to report on my findings in contemporary Italy. Then, in order to better contextualize my research, I will also go back and trace the history of these musical traditions from the Middle Ages. It is a difficult task but perhaps not an impossible one.
There are six different types of “ritual” in Italy today:
1) The oldest is of course the Roman-Italian, even though in the Rome of today, Sephardic influences prevail in the rite practiced in the Central Synagogue. It is well known that the five “Scole” – Sicilian, Catalan, Castilian, Italian and “Scola-Tempio” – were supplanted, about fifty years ago by the central synagogue.
2) In Northern Italy, from Florence to Turin and Padua, the Italian rite was practiced by communities established during the 1400s, when the first money-lending banks opened.
3) More recent than the Italian, but undoubtedly of medieval origin, is the minhag called “APAM” an acronym from the three Piedmontese kehilloth – Asti, Fossano and Moncalvo.
4) The Sephardic minhag conquered Italy by sea and it attacked the peninsula on two fronts, infiltrating both the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coastlines.
5) The cantillation of the Sephardic-Levantine minhag, practiced today in Venice, Ancona and part of Ferrara differs, characteristically, from that of the Tyrrhenian kehilloth – with which it shares only a few patterns of biblical reading.
6)Between 1500 and 1700, the Italian Ashkenazi communities flourished around three epicenters: Casale Monferrato in the Piedmont, Verona and Padua in the Veneto and finally Casalmaggiore, Firenzuola and lower Lombardy. Read full article