The Ladino songs that add fun to Pesach

Sephardi humour and music enhances the festival, says singer Monica Acosta


By Lawrence Joffe, April 1, 2010
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The band Kantos performing songs in Ladino. Monic Acosta (above, second from right, and below) describes the centuries-old Sephardic language as a varient of mediebal Castillian “frozen and put in the fridge”

The band Kantos performing songs in Ladino. Monic Acosta (above, second from right, and below) describes the centuries-old Sephardic language as a varient of mediebal Castillian “frozen and put in the fridge”

High in the Himalayas the Dalai Lama once met a group of rabbis. After their encounter he was asked what single aspect most impressed him about Judaism, and he immediately replied: the Passover Seder. Maybe, he mused, Tibetan Buddhists could adopt a similar home-based ceremony for re-enacting their own people's chequered history?

In fact the adaptability of the Seder format knows few bounds, even within the wider Jewish community. Last week the acclaimed young Colombian-born singer Monica Acosta led a series of workshops focusing on the hidden delights of Sephardi songs connected with Pesach, culminating in a Ladino concert at Lauderdale House in London.

Acosta, who has run classes under the auspices of the Jewish Music Institute for four years, is constantly amazed how quickly singers pick up Ladino, the ancient language of Sephardi Jews. "They are so flexible and enthusiastic; it really shows you the magic of people."

So what is it about Ladino that attracts so much interest among Ashkenazim as well as the Sephardim, not to mention many non-Jews? What, in fact, is Ladino?

Often described in shorthand as "the Sephardi Yiddish", Ladino is the vernacular spoken by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

As Ascosta describes it, Ladino is essentially a variant of medieval Castillian "frozen and put in the fridge", and then brought out again to be laced with Hebrew and words from wherever Jews settled, such as Greece, Turkey and Arab countries.

The result is a rich and spicy mixture, and a song tradition that influenced other genres, including flamenco and Turkish popular music.

As to the appeal of Ladino music, it is the direct connection with an ancient tradition, one that is both fun and profound. "It is so community based and natural, simple and compelling," Acosta says. Song accompanied every aspect of life and every great event, whether weddings, barmitzvahs or brit milahs.

And in the mouths of women denied an active role in the synagogue, Ladino became "a truly popular tradition", she says, yet one that blended in religious motifs, especially at Passover.

Many songs were popular ballads about wars, gossip or royal marriages, as sung by troubadours. As Acosta puts it, in the days before printing, or for people who could not read, troubadours acted like "walking newspapers".

One song she teaches is a romance about Moses meeting and marrying Zipporah; another is called Palestina Hermosa", a plaintive and beautiful song about the dreamed-for Zion; yet another is a song of encouragement for a young bride-to-be emerging from the mikveh and preparing for the fateful day under the chupah.

While many have religious inflections, the majority are not liturgical. Indeed, some are downright ribald, such as the string of family-based call-and-response ditties like Mi Suega de Negra (My Black-Hearted Mother-in-Law) which might make Les Dawson himself blush.

"Walking newspaper" is not a bad description of the active Seder, too, and in between songs, Monica's students learn about Sephardi Pesach customs. One tradition has the entire party getting up and marching around the table to emulate the flight from Egypt.

In Persia, Iraq and Morocco, a Seder guest carrying an afikomen in a napsack is interrogated: "Where are you from?"

"Egypt."

"Where are you going?"

"Israel."

Humour plays a key role, as in the gentle beating of guests with sticks of celery at the mention of the Egyptian taskmasters.

Speaking from Colombia, Acosta explains that "Sephardi culture and the Ladino language came to me by accident. I was listening to the radio and suddenly heard Turkish music with Ladino words. I did not know about this tradition; it intrigued me. It was so colourful, and there was the purity of the unadorned, plain single voice. There was so much emotion, longing and crying, drawing on the liturgical tradition, which I came to know about."

Then in 1992 Acosta, a classically trained singer, had "her first and last audition", and won the part of solo Ladino vocalist in a composition by the Tel Aviv-born master, Noam Sherif, called Sephardi Passion.

The work was, she describes, "a symphonic poem evoking events in history, and it was so beautiful."

Little by little, she says, "I found myself singing music that defines who I am", even though she is not herself of Sephardi origin. It was a particular privilege, she adds, to have sung the inaugural performance of Sephardi Passion with the Israeli Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta and alongside the celebrated Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo.

Based in Britain since 2005, when she won a scholarship to the Dartington International Summer School, Acosta loves teaching above all. "It is so rewarding seeing creativity emerge," she says.

She aims to do so in a "relaxed way, teaching by repetition, as a child learns". It is important that singers understand the meaning; hence translations from Ladino into English. Often participants hear a tune and recall, say, a song from decades back sung by an elderly relative.

Married last July, Monica took her first trip back to Colombia in January. For 60 years now, she says, there has been a revival of interest in Ladino in South America. In her other personas she is part of a Latin American singing troupe, Iara, and a Flamenco duo. She adores tango, too, especially the insight into the dark and melodramatic psychology.

She also sings Stockhausen, and admits that modern classical music is "quite different in technique and presentation" from folk singing, like Ladino. "Sometimes it is more fun to do than to hear! It is a challenge, but I like that. And this same creativity informs Ladino. It incorporates so many human themes, and really conveys values and tradition in an accessible way."

    Last updated: 11:01am, April 1 2010