Ladino's young flame

By Lawrence Joffe, April 18, 2008

Mor Karbasi chooses to sing in a dying tongue — but her performance is powerfully life-affirming

It was a chilly night at North Finchley’s artsdepot last Sunday, but more than a few rays of Mediterranean sun shone through when singer Mor Karbasi took the stage. Alternating her dress from sombre black to bridal white, dark tendrils of hair tumbling down, Karbasi proved more than a chanteuse: she relived the heritage she was evoking, acted out poignant lyrics with unaffected passion, and revealed a nice touch of self-deprecation when the god of mics was clearly not smiling.

Mostly Karbasi sang in Ladino, that uniquely Jewish concoction of medieval Castillian with Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and French. Somehow she breathed new life into an old language which embodies the highs and lows of Sephardi Jewish history, from the heyday of medieval Spain and expulsion of 1492 to the wanderings through North Africa, Ottoman Turkey and on to Amsterdam, London and Jerusalem.

Karbasi first heard Ladino five years ago — she is still only 21 — yet composes most of her music in the tongue. Clearly, Ladino strikes a deep chord with her. Born in Israel to a mother with Moroccan Sephardi roots and a father of Persian Jewish extraction, with a penchant for Queen and Led Zeppelin, Mor took to music like a duck to water. Classically trained on piano, for two years she sang professionally for a local flamenco ensemble, all the while listening to Moroccan piyuttim sang by her mother.

Karbasi has resisted the temptation of divadom despite being blessed with strikingly sensual looks. She acknowledges influences which show in hints of playful Yemenite intonations à la Ofra Haza, or the jazz sensibility of Achinoam Nini. What she writes, she says, blends the cultures, colours and sounds of “everything I inhaled” in Israel. Mostly, though, the melodies and words are her own.

The songs have a timeless feel, yet use an ancient template and re-fashion them in a new guise. Whether gentle, rousing or cheeky — as in the old favourite, Puncha Puncha (The Rose That Pricks) — the melodies are infused with Spanish gusto, syncopated Arabic rhythms and Jewish storytelling patterns.

Songs speak of everyday love and loss, jokes and lies, complaints, gentleness and gossip, dreams and hopes, the holy and the playfully profane. Her debut album, The Beauty and the Sea, released this month on the Mintaka Music label, features enticing layers of strings, Arabic oud and Middle Eastern motifs. Mor’s own composition, Fuego (Fire), closed with a fabulous Indian flute solo by a guest artist while sounding thoroughly at one with our 21st century.

By contrast, the traditional Mansevo del Dor suggested an exact replica of a 500-year-old medieval marketplace ditty, complete with its ululating chorus.

Throughout the concert — part of artsdepot’s Olam Musica series showcasing the best in Jewish music — Karbasi was assisted by her talented multi-national ensemble: electric violinist Pascal Roggen; Uruguayan Andres Ticino on a miscellany of bells, boxes, drums and cymbals; and Karbasi’s partner, Joe Taylor, on electric and acoustic guitar. In a different incarnation, Taylor heads the English indie band, Blackbud.

The Karbasi band has only been playing publicly since last year, when they appeared at the Womad world-music festival. Their telepathy and ability to shift moods sounded effortless. And while the odd segue into progressive rock might need some fine-tuning, overall their lyricism and musical economy made for a rich listening experience. Karbasi’s sweet and wide-ranging voice provided a perfect counterfoil to some talented soloing.

She also draws on personal memories. In tribute to her grandfather, she wrote the charming En La Kaye de mi Chikez (In The Street Of My Childhood). Mor does not often sing in Hebrew, but when she does — as in Shecharhoret, about a portside girl tanned by the sun, or Be’enaim tsohakot (Laughing Eyes) — she sounds jaunty and life-affirming, redolent of classic Esther Ofakim.

Karbasi’s voice is sometimes charming and girlish, sometimes surprisingly loud and authoritative, yet never coy or overbearing. Ethereal songs about feathers, doves and roses abound, yet the emotions described are universal. One touchingly describes a mother speaking to her daughter before her wedding night. So it comes as no surprise that Karbasi’s own mother, Shoshana, wrote lyrics for several songs.

Karbasi boldly chose to end the concert with Judia, a song she composed after visiting Auschwitz. She wrote it as a tribute to the innocents murdered by Nazism, and as a reminder that so many Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews from Salonika, Rhodes, Bulgaria and elsewhere perished in the Holocaust.

Yet the haunting whispered refrain, which began like an ethereal cry, altered during the course of the song almost into a voice of hope — a rare maturity over a difficult subject by someone only 21 years old.

Karbasi is currently touring Britain, so catch her if you can.

Last updated: 5:37pm, May 14 2008