Sephardic Cousins Reunite, 40 Years On

For Gerard Edery and Claudio Betan, the connection is both genetic and musical.

10/09/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Gerard Edery, Left, and Claudio Betan. "We share the Argentine connection," Edery says. George Robinson
Gerard Edery, Left, and Claudio Betan. "We share the Argentine connection," Edery says. George Robinson

Forty years is a long time between drinks. Or collaborations.

But that is how long it has been since Gerard Edery has sung with his cousin Claudio Betan. Once, when Edery was a green 17-year-old trying to commit himself to a musical career, and Betan was a rising young opera singer in Rome, the two hooked up enthusiastically, their powerful, deep voices blending with a natural grace and ease. Then fate, in the imposing form of Edery’s father, intervened, and the two young men lost touch.

Today, they are sitting together in a café near Lincoln Center, reunited for a pair of mid-October concerts in Greenwich Village and a third in Westchester, and reveling in how little change the years have wrought since they first shared a song in 1973.

“I was hitchhiking through Europe and in Rome I looked up Claudio,” Edery says. “He was studying voice and singing opera. He started teaching me the Latin American songs he had grown up with, and listening to him I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

First cousins once removed, the two were separated by almost 15 years, but the musical connection was immediate. They formed a duo and were working in Rome, singing in the lively club scene there and considering record and TV deals. Then the phone rang from New York.

“My father wanted me to take over his textile business and, as the eldest son of a Sephardic family, I was expected to do what he wanted,” Edery recalls. There is still just the faintest hint of anger and disappointment even now as he recounts the events. “He put the fear of God into me.”

For the next five years, Edery learned the business and enjoyed some success in the so-called shmata trade. Eventually he broke free and returned to music, singing opera and then playing guitar and singing the widely varied world music repertoire that has made him popular in the Jewish community.

Betan continued to pursue his operatic career with success until he retired a few years ago. Now he lives in France, on the Atlantic coast and spends his time gardening and traveling. But the love of music, which goes back to his childhood in Casablanca, has never left. When Gerard recently got back in touch and the two began speaking regularly by Skype, it was inevitable that each would suggest they resume the work that had started four decades ago.

“Gerard asked me, ‘Why don’t you come to New York,’” Betan says. “’We have to finish what we started.’ The connection between us was so powerful then and it still is.”

The connection is not only genetic, it’s also musical. Both men come out of a strong background in Sephardic and Argentine music, play the guitar and bring big, dark voices and operatic training to their collaboration. (Edery is also bringing Polish mezzo Malgorzata Panko, to whom he recently became engaged.)

But they both agree that the genetic connection underpins the musical one.

“The way the voices mix together, the combination of the overtones, that’s from the blood,” Betan says.

“We share the Argentine connection,” Edery adds.

“And the Jewish connection,” Betan replies.

They share a deep affection for the Andean musician Atahualpa Yupanqui. (Edery released an album of Yupanqui’s songs on his own Sefarad label last year.) And their repertoire for the three New York-area events will also feature other Latin American folk forms, “like cumbias and guajiras,” Edery says.

He adds, with a beatific smile, “I just love what we do together. My wish is that we can communicate to an audience the pleasure we have when we play together.”

And that it won’t take another 40 years to repeat the experience.

Gerard Edery and Claudio Betan will be performing “Treasures of Latin American and Sephardic Song” with Malgorzata Panko, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m., at Village Temple (12th Street and University Place). Reservations are recommended; call (212) 674-2340. The following night, the duo will be playing as part of the Global Living Room series curated by Edery at the Cornelia St. Café (29 Cornelia St.), 8:30 p.m. For information, call (212) 989-9319. On Saturday, Oct. 19, the three singers will perform once more at a benefit for American Friends of the Soroka Medical Center at Young Israel of Scarsdale (1313 Weaver St., Scarsdale), 8 p.m. For information, call (914) 725-9070. For information on Edery’s recent recordings, go to www.sefaradrecords.com.

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