Tsitsit Jewish Fringe Festival – Ladino songs of the mother tongue

By Sara Feldmann Brummer

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of curating the music strand for Tsitsit Festival, the world’s first Jewish-themed fringe festival.  It’s been a great opportunity to platform Jewish female musicians and explore their musical passions – Ladino music is a strong influence, as it often tells women’s stories.

Ladino is considered an endangered living language, originating through the Sephardic Jews (from Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain). Between 50,000 and 150,000 Jews left Spain in 1492, under threat from anti-Semitism and the Spanish Inquisition.  This led to a diaspora of Sephardim across the world, and eventually brought about communities and individuals who speak Ladino, thought by some to be 60 to 70% of the language spoken by the Sephardim in 1492.

Traditionally performed unaccompanied, within the home and community environment, many Ladino songs tell female-centric tales – the life cycle, lullabies, stories of adultery and heartbreak.

Singer-songwriter and composer Ana Silvera describes a sense of female connection:

So many of the Ladino songs are written from a female perspective – about unrequited love, bridal preparations, mothers-in-law, sensuality, lust, rage and that’s something that greatly appeals to me as a singer and a woman.”

Ana has been inspired by Ladino traditions in her own song writing, linking her back to her own Sephardic heritage.

“I’ve always felt deeply drawn to the vocal stylings that you hear in middle Eastern music and sometimes in interpretations of Ladino music. I think I moved towards Ladino music as I grew more curious about my roots – but I can definitely see a common thread between my original songs and the melancholy, longing, wandering and exile that appear so often in my work and in Ladino songs.”

These traditional songs, passed down through the generations in the diaspora, keep the language alive, giving a voice to women and their experience. Ladino contains elements of Catalan, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. Eliezer Papo, of the National Authority of Ladino in Israel, describes it as “a language without a homeland”.[1]

Colombian-born singer Monica Acosta feels an affinity with the communication expressed in Sephardic songs. Her concert for Tsitsit Festival features narrative ballads showing the dialogue between mother and daughter, and important issues such as motherhood and family relationships, preserving women’s feelings in song.

Women were often not allowed to sing in the synagogue, so they sang at home – expressing their joys and challenges. The song subjects are often deep, but also comical stories of daily life – dealing with gossip, annoying neighbours, or the conflicts of having two lovers, something I feel that no man could write about as well as a woman can!”

Singer-songwriter Nani discovered Ladino music as a child, via her Moroccan grandmother. “She spoke Ladino, but my father forbade us to speak to each other in any other language but Hebrew. Instead, she sang songs in the kitchen, in this mysterious dialect no one could understand. I still remember peeling beans with her, listening to the fascinating rhythms, hoping that one day I’d be able to sing them myself, as well as she did.”

Twenty years later, on a visit to her grandmother’s hometown of Fez, after performing at the Tangier Jazz Festival, Nani heard the same melody being sung in the street.

A traditional Ladino song was sung in Arabic, through the throats of a few hundred people on the square, in front of Fez’s blue gate, transporting me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. It felt like destiny, as if I was meant to disconnect from my roots and rediscover them, when I was ready.”

The ensemble Buenos Klezmer has a predominately female line-up. Their shows include traditional Jewish music from the Eastern European shtetls – Klezmer and Yiddish songs – as well as Ladino music. When researching songs for their shows, singer Maya Levy was struck by the contrasts between the two styles in terms of content.

The Yiddish songs we’ve found are often satirical, or about food, or funny songs from 19th century Yiddish Theatre shows. I’d say they are usually dominated by a male perspective – indeed, many of them were performed by men, some who were even famous Chazzans (Cantors).  The Ladino songs tend to be medieval tales with many verses or broken-hearted love songs. That makes them sound a bit miserable, but there are some joyful wedding songs and very rhythmic styles in there too!

Like Ana Silvera and Nani, Maya also feels connections through Ladino music to her own family background.

Although in my family it was my grandfather and his brothers who sat around the table singing Ladino songs, I’ve found there is a more feminine aspect to many of these songs. I love singing both, but my heart, unsurprisingly, probably lies with Sephardi music.”

Tsitsit Jewish Fringe Festival – Ladino concerts

Buenos Klezmer perform at Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club, London on 10th October.

Monica Acosta sings Sephardic Songs at King Alfred Phoenix Theatre, London on 17th October.

Ana Silvera performs Ladino Laments and Love Songs at Manchester Jewish Museum on 28th October.

For more information and to book tickets, visit https://tsitsitfringe.org/

Nani’s new Ladino Music album launches on 14th November at Pizza Express Holborn as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, with a pre-concert panel discussion and live stream via the Jewish Music Institute Online

[1] Eliezer Papo quote from Between the Ears: Ladino, BBC Radio Four

(Written and presented by Jessica Marlowe, Musician and Sound Artist)