Ladino artists are working to keep their historic Sephardic culture relevant and fresh. The story is playing out at the inaugural world music festival in Gibraltar.
Any artist working in “World Music” (likely the vaguest genre for which Billboard tracks sales) has to determine the role traditional sounds play in their compositions. They hang suspended between the present and the past; too much fealty to the canon and the recordings become academic exercises in evoking a world long gone. Update your sound too much and you risk severing your connection to the folk vernacular entirely. After all, all music comes from somewhere in the world but no one calls Lady Gaga “World Music.”
Ladino, the language of the Judeo-Spanish Diaspora, has unfairly languished behind Yiddish in the Jewish language popularity sweepstakes. With the release of her 2009 U.K. album “Sentir” in the United States and an accompanying tour, including upcoming shows in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Israeli singer Yasmin Levy joins a bevy of artists trying to change that. Alongside artists like Sarah Aroeste, Judith Cohen and Flory Jagoda, Levy tries to channel a rich, transnational, historical genre for modern audiences. Like those artists, she has succeeded in evoking something distant and foreign. She has failed in similar ways too, producing another Ladino project trapped as a token of the past without bringing anything exciting and new to the table.
When Erez Safar started the Sephardic Music Festival in 2005, he was thinking about the future of Sephardic music. Having spent the last decade watching klezmer explode in popularity among artists like the avant-garde composer John Zorn and the Brooklyn punk band Golem, Safar realized klezmer was moving into a brave new future and was leaving its Sephardic counterparts behind. If the annual festival is Safar’s response to that problem, “Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1,” is the permanent document illuminating a musical movement at a moment of uncertain transformation.
Last year as part of the “28 Days, 28 Ideas” project, Ladino chanteuse Sarah Aroeste made a case on The Sisterhood blog for more collaboration among Jewish female musicians. In the piece, she discussed her own work with fellow singer-songwriters Naomi Less and Chana Rothman. In an effort to highlight the work of female artists and to gain greater exposure for social justice efforts in communities across the country, Aroeste, Less and Rothman have committed to traveling and performing together; their initiative is called “Lights Ignite Change.” This month, the three women are out with their first jointly produced single, called “A New Light.” Take a listen: