Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: AWM SC 11800 - 11868

The Kay Kaufman Shelemay Syrian-Jewish Collection, 1984 -1993.


Original field recordings of the Syrian-Jewish genre of pizmonim (paraliturgical hymns) as it has evolved from the early 20th century. Fieldwork was conducted in Brooklyn, NY between 1984 and 1993, and in Brooklyn, NY; Deal, NJ; Mexico City; and Jerusalem between 1986 and 1993.


  • 1984 -1993.
  • 1984 - 1993 (inclusive).

Language of Materials

Materials in the collection are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Conditions Governing Access

Because of the sensitive religious and personal nature of the collection content, all requests for access should be forwarded to the Curator, Archive of World Music.


1 collection (Sound recordings: 96 audio cassettes, 6 compact discs and one long-playing vinyl disc; one book; two 3.5-inch floppy diskettes.)
The Shelemay Syrian-Jewish Collection, mainly on cassette tapes, contains individual oral histories, live music performances, and ancillary recordings collected as part of a research project on the pizmonim (paraliturgical hymns) of the Syrian Jews. The songs are contrafacta, setting newly composed Hebrew texts to borrowed melodies, mainly from the Arab music tradition.

The main field site was Brooklyn, New York, and much of the material was gathered during a team research project Shelemay organized and directed at New York University for three semesters beginning in the fall of 1984, and extending through December 1985. Significant additional material is included from her subsequent independent field work in Brooklyn, NY; Deal, NJ; Mexico City; and Jerusalem, carried out from 1986 through the mid-1990s. The songs collected and discussed date both from centuries of Syrian-Jewish life in Aleppo and from pizmon composition following migration to the United States that began in the early twentieth century.

The collection contains 35 tapes of interviews and 34 tapes of live music sessions. Also included are 27 related commercial and private recordings presented by members of the community to Shelemay and/or team members. Among these are rare historical recordings of deceased pizmon singers in the community, liturgical excerpts, Arab songs that were the source of pizmon melodies, and recordings from the private 78 rpm collection of a Syrian Jewish family who lived for many years in Haiti (includes Arabic, Yiddish, and Haitian songs). Also held is a privately-produced 6-CD set containing pizmonim and liturgical portions performed by Moses Tawil, originally recorded over many years in Brooklyn and remastered as a private collection in Israel. The set contains booklets with detailed notes on Tawil and the history of the collected contents, as well as song texts in Hebrew.

In addition to recordings, the collection includes two 3.5" Maxell MF 2 DD floppy diskettes of interview transcripts and fieldnotes, and a volume of pizmonim intended for singing that was published in Brooklyn, NY in 1983.

Note to Users: For the purpose of this finding aid, transliterations for subject and index terms and proper names, when found, have been standardized according to the OCLC authority file.

Biographical and Historical Note

Kay Kaufman Shelemay is G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music at Harvard University and an ethnomusicologist with specializations in musics of Africa, the Middle East, and the urban United States. Before joining the Harvard faculty in 1992, Shelemay taught at Columbia, New York, and Wesleyan Universities. At Harvard, she has served as Chair of the Department of Music and has been active in interdisciplinary studies across several domains.

Shelemay received her Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Michigan in 1977. She was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Radcliffe Institute and the American Academy for Jewish Research. Shelemay has been a Congressional appointee to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress since 2000 and she was Chair of that Board from 2002 to 2004. She was named the Chair in Modern Culture at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress during August and September, 2007 and in June, 2008. She is also a past president of the Society for Ethnomusicology and edited the seven-volume Garland Library of Readings in Ethnomusicology (1990).

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Shelemay carried out fieldwork and wrote extensively on Ethiopian music and musicians in their North American diaspora. Her monograph Music, Ritual, and Falasha History (1986, 1989) won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award and the Prize of the International Musicological Society. A second book entitled A Song of Longing. An Ethiopian Journey (1991) detailed her years abroad as well as the unanticipated impact that the encroaching Ethiopian Revolution had on her life and research goals. Recordings and accompanying materials from her research on Orthodox Ethiopian church music are held in the Archive of World Music as The Kay Kaufman Shelemay Collection of Ethiopian Music.

In the mid-1980s Shelemay carried out an ethnographic project among Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, NY which resulted in a large collection of field recordings and interviews being deposited in the Sephardic Archives in Brooklyn. The history of that team research project, ethnographic details, and a wealth of other materials are found in articles and in her book Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1992). At the end of the initial project, her continued interest in the tradition led to additional research through 1993 that produced the interview and performance recordings housed in this collection.


  1. Series 1. Interviews
  2. Series 2. Live Music Sessions
  3. Series 3. Commercial and Privately Produced Audio Recordings
  4. Series 4. Printed material, interview transcripts and fieldnotes

Physical Location

Harvard Depository.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was given by Kay Kaufman Shelemay to the Harvard Music Library, Archive of World Music in June 2010.

Related Materials

Cohen, Judah M. 2008. “Shadows in the Classroom: Encountering the Syrian Jewish Research Project Twenty Years Later,” in Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. 2nd ed. Eds. Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 157-166. [This chapter provides follow up observations based on encounters at New York University twenty years after the original team research ended.] Call number: Loeb Music Seeger Room ML3799 .S5 2008

Kligman, Mark L. 2009. Maqam and Liturgy: Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. [This book is based in part on materials gathered by the team project used for his doctoral dissertation.] Call number: Loeb Music Seeger Room ML3195 .K53 2009 [+compact disc]

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. 2008. “The Ethnomusicologist, Ethnographic Method, and the Transmission of Tradition,” in Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. 2nd ed. Eds. Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 141-156. Call number: Loeb Music Seeger Room ML3799 .S5 2008

–––. 1998. Let Jasmine Rain Down. Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Accompanying compact disc. Call number: Loeb Music Seeger Room ML3776 .S53 1998 [Sound disc classified as AWM CD 13032]

–––2009. “The Power of Silent Voices: Women in the Syrian Musical Tradition,” in Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Ed. Laudan Nooshin (United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.), pp. 269-288. Call number: Loeb Music Harvard Depository ML3916 .M873 2009

–––1988. “Together in the Field: Team Research Among Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.” Ethnomusicology 32 (3): 369-384.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Peter Laurence and Donna Morales Guerra, in consultation with Kay Kaufman Shelemay. Finding aid encoded by Peter Laurence and Donna Morales Guerra.
Link to catalog
Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. The Kay Kaufman Shelemay Syrian-Jewish Collection, 1984 - 1993. A Finding Aid
Archive of World Music, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard College Library

Repository Details

Part of the Loeb Music Library Repository

Music Building, 3 Oxford Street
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2794