SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Music of the Jews of Arab Lands

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1

Exile has been the defining characteristic of Jewish culture for most of Jewish history. Across the Arab world, the Sephardi and so-called Mizrahi Jews developed unique languages, rituals and musical styles over centuries that continued to grow following dramatic expulsions like those in 1492 or following 1948. In turn, Jewish musicians often shaped the soundworlds of their host cultures even as they continued to move across and around the Mediterranean. This class focuses on the itineraries of the Jews of Arab lands, examining the trajectories of musical styles that traveled from Babylonia, Yemen, and medieval Spain, through Livorno, Fez and Baghdad, and continue to live on today in Jerusalem, Casablanca and Brooklyn. We examine the musical framing of diaspora, and how the movement of people changes the way groups come to reframe music as memory. We also consider ritual and text, and the way each shapes intimate and sacred spaces. Thinking about some musical styles that have faded away and some that continue to flourish, we re-centre the Jewish musical experience around its Sephardi/Mizrahi history, with triangular routes of movement and memory.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

This module introduces students to the basic concepts in diaspora studies through the lens of Jewish music in the Arab world. In the process, students will be able to:

  • Analyze the structure and style of some of the most important musical genres of the Middle East and North Africa;
  • Frame cultural production through the prism of diaspora;
  • Explain how culture travels;
  • Describe the itineraries of Jewish languages, rituals and instruments;
  • Differentiate between sacred, traditional and popular music in the modern Middle East;
  • Explain the role that religion and politics play in shaping the musical life of a city;
  • Consider the circumstances under which music affects the civic status of religious minorities.


2 hours per week

Scope and syllabus

Each session traces the itinerary of musicians to and from the Arabic-speaking world, tracing major events in Jewish history through musical, ritual and textual interventions:

  1. Babylonia – Baghdad – Givatayim
    (the Talmud to Judeo-Arabic)
  2. Basra – Be’er Yaakov – Hatikvah
    (remixing the oud)
  3. Mawza – Sana'a – Kerem HaTeimanim
    (Shabazi’s liturgical poetry)
  4. Aden – Addis Ababa – London
    (Trade, Empire and Torah)
  5. Aleppo – Brooklyn/Jerusalem
    (Pizmonim and Bakkashot)
  6. Alexandria – Cairo – Ashdod
    (Cosmopolitanism and the Geniza)
  7. Oran – Marseille – Montreal
    (Francophone cosmopolitanism)
  8. Livorno – Djerba – Netivot
    (Sainthood and Pilgrimage)
  9. Granada – Tetouan – Bat Yam
    (Ladino pathways)
  10. Fez – Paris – Netanya
    (Mobility and class)

Method of assessment

  • 500 word song reaction essay - 10%
  • 1,500 word liner notes (10 minute podcast or portfolio) - 70%
  • 30 minute map quiz - 10%
  • 30 minute listening test - 10%


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules