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“In Judeo-Spanish song, it is particularly difficult to figure out where ‘outsider’ ends and ‘insider’ begins,” Judith Cohen wrote in a 1993 article in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. Cohen, an ethnomusicologist at Toronto’s York University who specializes in Ladino music, points out that some Ladino performers are gentiles, while others, like herself and her daughter, Tamar, with whom she released an album, “Sefarad en Diáspora,” in 2006, are Ashkenazi Jews.
Even artists like Aroeste, who come from ethnic Sephardi backgrounds, may not have heard Ladino spoken in their homes and had to discover the language and music later in life. Only about 100,000 people around the world still speak Ladino, and they are concentrated mostly in Israel.
Notably, while there are a few male artists, the public faces of the Ladino revival today are female. “There are a lot of young, pretty women out there right now,” Aroeste said, explaining their particular visibility in Ladino music. “We’re dark haired, we’re exotic.” Aroeste’s music is specifically concerned with the role of women in Ladino and mainstream culture. The opening track of her new album, “Gracia,” samples Gloria Steinem, and poet Vanessa Hidary, aka the Hebrew Mamita, raps throughout. The album itself is named after Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi, a 15th-century Jewish woman who developed a sort of underground railroad for conversos, Jews who converted to Catholicism to flee the Inquisition.
Ljuba Davis, who has been performing Ladino music since 1969 and just released her first album, “East and West,” agrees with Aroeste. “I think women relate to it more, but I’m not sure why,” Davis said. She recalls flipping through Sephardic catalogs at music stores and finding a predominance of women artists. “Maybe women are just more sensitive to this kind of emotional music,” she said.
Davis, a Ladino pioneer, performed folk protest music in coffee shops and campuses throughout Boston, Chicago and California’s Bay area in the 1960s and ’70s. When she moved to Berkeley in 1969, she started researching the Ladino canon and soon began performing it almost exclusively. “It was this music that had to do with my family’s oral tradition and heritage,” she said. “I had to learn it.”
Singing traditional songs as a woman creates its own set of issues. Davis released “East and West” as a double album. One disc has her vocals on it, while the other is just male vocals and instrumental tracks. Though she isn’t Orthodox herself, Davis wanted her music to reach as large an audience as possible, including Orthodox men who won’t listen to kol isha, or women singing.
Aroeste has had her own kol isha concerns. When she first started playing Ladino music, she got a call from a synagogue asking her to perform. Their only stipulation was that someone else sing her music. She declined. “I laughed,” she said. “I thought that was funny, because my music is me. It’s my voice.”
For all its novel characteristics, it’s change, more than anything else, that defines the Ladino revival. It’s an unmoored and eclectic musical movement that has been displaced geographically many times over, absorbing the languages and music of Jewish communities throughout the world. By accommodating a plethora of traditions that cross geographic, ethnic and musical borders, Ladino guarantees its survival. In the hands of artists sorting out their own narratives, it allows them to tell a generous story of inclusion.
Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Spin magazine, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.