Journal of American Folklore. Leo Levi, the Man with the Nagra

Leo Levi-The Man with the Nagra. 2011. By Yaala Levi Zimmerman. 90 min. DVD. In He- brew and Italian, subtitles in English. (Jerusa- lem, Israel: Ruth Diskin, Ltd.)

Leo Levi-The Man with the Nagra is a film that will appeal to several audiences, exploring as it does the diverse yet profoundly interwoven pas- sions of Leo Levi’s life (1912-1982). One of those passions, the ethnomusicology of Italian Jewry, will be of particular interest to readers of this journal, especially since his ethnomusi- cological work was a unique, single-handed salvage operation, undertaken at the last pos- sible moment. Levi’s story is all the more engag- ing because his was a committed ideological life in which the collection, transcription, preserva- tion, and analysis of traditional music brought together all the other threads of his life and became his most fulfilling and fruitful labor.

Leo Levi was not just an ethnomusicologist of Italian Jewry; he was virtually the only col- lector of traditional Italian Jewish music. He mainly recorded synagogue melodies-hymns, chants, blessings, holiday prayers, the Torah cantillations, and other liturgical music. He also collected non-liturgical folk songs, including local variations of widespread Passover songs like Had Gadya/Capretto (“One Little Goat”). Italy is famous, of course, for its distinct re- gional folk cultures, and Italian Jews, being as much regional Italians as Jews, replicated pat- terns of regional variation even in their reli- gious expressive culture. Their communities consisted of descendants of both those who had come (or had been brought as slaves) from an- cient Judea to Rome (the “Italkim”) and gen- erations of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews who had been expelled from Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany. The proportions of this ethnic mix varied according to the community, a city like Livorno being completely Sephardic and a city like Venice having roughly equal numbers of Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Italkic Jews. Three small cities in Piedmont-Asti, Fossano, and Moncalvo-preserved a liturgy from France. The different musical traditions from these sources mixed in various ways in each synagogue and were passed on orally/aurally. Thus, musical traditions varied not only be- tween regions, but even between synagogues within the same cities.

Leo Levi’s gift to the world began with his realization, after World War II, that although much of this repertoire had already disap- peared, and many singers who knew the melo- dies were old and were the last singers of par- ticular traditions, it was still possible, if he acted quickly, to save a great deal of it. He convinced RAI, the Italian state-owned public broadcast- ing station, to fund his fieldwork as part of It- aly’s folklore (a hard sell in postwar, pre-boom Italy, as Israeli ethnomusicologist Edwin Se- roussi points out in the film). Subsequently, during the 1950s and early 1960s, Levi suc- ceeded in recording over 1,000 melodies from 27 different liturgical traditions. During his lifetime, he disseminated articles in scholarly publications, and in 2002, these articles were collected in an anthology, Canti tradizionali e tradizioni liturgiche: Ricerche e studi sulle tra- dizioni musicali ebraiche esui loro rapporti con il canto cristiano,1 edited by Roberto Leydi, the leading Italian ethnomusicologist with whom Levi sometimes collaborated. Two sets of Levi’s field recordings are available in archives, one at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the other at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. …

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