Breathing new life into ancient Sephardi songs

Music written in the ancient language of Spanish Jews is getting a very contemporary revamp


Britain has been late to the Ladino 

As Jewish musicians in New York, Israel and Latin America have dusted off the plaintive song of exile of the Sephardi diaspora, British voices have been curiously underrepresented.

Yja, the musical brainchild of vocalist Ana Silvera and cellist 
Francesca Ter Berg, is hoping to change that and bring an eclectic London flavour to a scene that has been dominated by New York and Tel Aviv. The group recently released their first single, La Serena, which mixes Ana’s sweet plaintive singing with processed voices and an undercurrent of electronic synth.

La Serena has got a clearly contemporary feel,” says Silvera. “It has come out with a modern, London feel.” It incorporates unsettling electronic elements — a revolutionary move, as the Ladino scene has remained starkly traditional until now. “We’re interested to push it in an experimental direction,” says Silvera.

Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is the Spanish-derived language that was carried out of Spain in 1492 by Jews fleeing the Inquisition.

For the past decade, pioneering musicians in the United States and Israel, such as Sarah Aroeste and Ljuba Davis, have taken up the mantle of Ladino music from a shrinking older generation — many of whom were well-known in Morocco and Turkey in their youths — and begun to take the folk tunes mainstream.

Despite their success, some felt the initial burst of energy on the Ladino scene had stalled.

“I noticed that everyone seems to know the same ten songs,” says Ter Berg. “For interesting things to be happening with the music, there has to be a critical mass of people doing creative things with it— otherwise it becomes a museum piece.

“Ladino had gone through the phase where lots of amazing singers had picked up the music and started performing the songs with traditional ensembles but nothing more had happened.”

Ladino shares with its Spanish source a flexibility and sweetness that made it well-suited to the common themes in Sephardi folk music.

“These songs are so much about love and heartbreak, unrequited love and travel across the sea, mystery and seduction — and a lot of traditional songs are — but from culture to culture, that is expressed in different ways,” says Ter Berg. She came to Ladino after spending time in the much larger klezmer music scene, which has previously always over-shadowed the traditional music of non-Ashkenazi Jews.

“In Ladino, coming from Spain and Portugal,” she says, “the lyrics are very fiery, Mediterranean and romantic, with a passion that maybe you don’t find in Hungarian folk songs.”

La Serena, in which a woman sings evocatively of a world across the oceans, is no different. In the swishing lyrics, Silvera paints a picture of a fantasy world far from the shores of medieval Iberia.

“There is a different kind of pain and a different kind of beauty and it is nice to explore that,” she says.

Ladino’s precipitous decline mirrored those of the plethora of other languages incubated in the Jewish diaspora.

In Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, 90 per cent of Ladino speakers were murdered during the Holocaust. In Israel and Turkey, Hebrew and Turkish quietly displaced Ladino.

Today, there are fewer than 100,000 Ladino speakers, virtually all of whom are elderly.

But Ladino, like Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic, is an umbrella term. Beneath it shelters a plethora of dialects and accents, incubated in the cities where exiles settled — from Tangiers to Thessalonica, Sarajevo to Smyrna.

“It was interesting trying to figure out how much of the Middle Eastern style — they call it a La Turca — to use. It has more of the microtonal nasal style of Ladino,” says Silvera, whose family traces its roots back to Aleppo.

“We wanted to take it in a new direction that might attract new audiences to it and give it a fresh lease of life, as it predominantly isn’t a spoken language any more — but it is a really rich musical tradition,” says Ter Berg.

Rifling through archival recordings and negotiating academic research into the folk songs of the Sephardi diaspora has been central to their efforts to revitalise the Ladino repertoire.

“As this process has gone on, I have started to feel a real awareness of actually how little is out there in terms of accessible writings on the history. There are very basic things that we struggled to find out through research,” says Silvera.

Yja has not been alone in commenting on the relative dearth of Ladino source material in archives — so much so that in January, it was announced in the United States that a new project would digitise more than a quarter of the 2,600 known pieces of Ladino literature in the world.

La Serena is the first track on a forthcoming LP and Silvera and Ter Berg are planning to go on tour once the coronavirus pandemic lifts.

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