After a stint with rapper Nissim on a series of Jewish-themed hip-hop numbers, Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, a.k.a. “the rapping rabbi,” turned to collaboration with Alex Hernandez, a rapper from Mexico who moved to Seattle with his wife and daughter to convert to Judaism.
Under the name Los Serenos Sefarad, Hernandez and Benzaquen have recorded several tracks of romanzas (traditional Judeo-Spanish songs) that incorporate original Ladino lyrics, Benzaquen’s new interpretations, and Hernandez’s rap delivery and musical direction — including the use of a variety of traditional Middle Eastern instruments.
Benzaquen believes the real message of the Ladino songs is hidden in metaphor and allegory, much like Song of Songs, which is recited in many Sephardic congregations every Friday night. “Sephardi Jews are used to this kind of suggestion,” he says. One of their first cuts is “La Vida Do Por El Raki,” a melody popular at Sephardic life cycle celebrations. Ostensibly a simple song about the irresistibility of arak (an anise liquor similar to ouzo), Benzaquen believes the verses deal with the great medieval rabbi Maimonides’s approach to the idea of free will, and he rewrote the lyrics to expand on that fundamental principle of Judaism.
For the rabbi, the romanzas represent an enduring piece of Sephardic culture. “The fact that these seemingly simple songs have captured the imagination of Sephardi Jews for all these centuries indicates that there’s something here worth exploring and preserving.”
Check out the video below for “La Vida Do Por El Raki,” set against footage of iconic Seattle sites. Los Serenos Sefarad’s first CD is due out this summer.