The unique musical traditions of Rome's ancient Jewish community were almost lost for good. Now, those melodies are being revived — not by musicologists, but by a rock band based in New York.
"I fell in love with the melodies, and I started to re-imagine them for my band in our own style," says Dan Kaufman, guitarist and leader of the Brooklyn band Barbez.
Kaufman knew practically nothing about Roman Jews when he first heard the recordings of Leo Levi. Levi was an ethnomusicologist who traveled across Italy with a tape recorder — "sort of like the Alan Lomax of Italy," Kaufman says. The oral musical traditions of Roman Jews largely disappeared from synagogues during the 20th century, as they were absorbed into modern Jewish culture. But something about those nearly forgotten melodies stuck in Kaufman's head.
"These melodies feel very catchy and familiar. But at the same time, they're very unusual," says Pamelia Kurstin, who plays theremin in Barbez.
The theremin is an electronic instrument that may be best known for creating spooky sounds in horror movies. But Kurstin says the instrument is also perfectly suited to ancient religious melodies.
"When you're listening to spiritual music, there's some mystery inside it," Kurstin says. "There's something that's calling you to look deeper and ask questions."
Dan Kaufman's questions led the Barbez guitarist to Rome in 2009, where he listened to more of Leo Levi's recordings and learned about the history of the city's Jewish community. European Jewish culture generally falls into one of two traditions: Ashkenazi, which is Eastern European, and Sephardic, which is Spanish. But Kaufman says Roman Jews maintained their own distinct identity — one they trace directly back to ancient Israel.
"They predate the Diaspora," Kaufman says. "They came over to Rome at least in the 2nd century B.C., maybe earlier. There were a lot of connections between Rome and Jerusalem at that time. And their music retained a unique quality."
While he was in Rome, Kaufman also learned about the Nazi occupation of the city during WWII, and about the Italian resistance. One night, he was walking through the streets of Rome when he came across a surviving monument to that history.
"There was a building on a quiet street called the Via Rasella that was bullet-ridden," Kaufman says. "And I found out more about this building later, which was it was the site of one of the greatest partisan actions during the war."
In March 1944, a small group of Italian resistance fighters attacked a contingent of German soldiers, killing 33 of them. The Germans responded by executing more than 300 civilians, many of them Jews. In homage to those fighters, Kaufman and his band recorded the poem "The Resistance and Its Light" by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The band also decided to record the unofficial anthem of the Italian Resistance, a song called "Bella Ciao."
"It's basically expressing a wish to fight for freedom — and a willingness to die if need be," Kaufman says. "So it's a very powerful song. And that's the spirit of the song: a willingness to pay the ultimate price, so that others can one day be free."
Bella Ciao is also the name of Barbez's new album. The band members say it's intended as a rock record, not a history lesson. But if it prompts listeners to ask questions of their own, they say that would be fine, too.