Little is known about the traditional Mediterranean language of Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, aside from its association with Jewish life and history. The popularized and often cited representative of Ladino is probably the familiar “Ocho Kandelikas” Hanukkah song, and even that isn’t something of which every Jew is aware. As it turns out, UCLA has been part of a continual effort to preserve Ladino culture for the past seven years.
ucLADINO is the name of the Judeo-Spanish symposium that UCLA’s Jewish Studies department hosts every year in Royce Hall. It’s an event that calls attention to academic research, literature and music that all seek a platform for expression and engagement of Ladino culture.
To gain insight on Ladino music, I interviewed Simone Salmón, a graduate student at UCLA who studied Ladino in great detail over her academic career. She also directs a Ladino vocal ensemble called Kantigas Muestras, founded by Paulette Navarro, that performs at the ucLADINO symposium every year.
How is Ladino music generally characterized?
Salmón: Well, it changes based on where Jewish communities are located. One thing that’s in common with a lot of them is that they try to sound Spanish. You know, they might throw in Flamenco guitar, and it’s a Turkish band. Just so they can feel like they’re back in Spain. I think they have a stronger longing for Spain than they do for Israel, way more.
So, this music has become the long-term way of feeding that desire to go back?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of nostalgia in it. You hear a lot of people say that, those who listen to this kind of music. I met a guy at a retirement home and told him, “Oh, I have a Ladino radio show, you should listen to it,” but he said “I can’t listen to Ladino music. It makes me cry too much.”
Then this is an emotionally driven genre?
Yeah. The tradition is that it was a women’s song tradition. Women would sing it to their kids to teach them life lessons, or while they’re doing chores they would sing to one another. These were songs about the life cycle: birth, death, weddings, longing and love.
Was this an oral tradition, or written and recorded at all?
Mostly oral. I can only speak for Turkey because that’s the region I know most about, but Jewish women were not supposed to be singing of course, and that was even outside of the synagogue too. [This is in reference to the Jewish law of Kol B’Isha Erva, which prevents women from singing publicly due to the potential for sexual arousal of men.] There’s the story of someone probably in the generation of my grandparents about this girl. Her dad was a chazan [cantor]. He taught her to sing and she loved the music, and she found this Muslim friend and they would go singing at the bars at night. Then she got caught, and the family was embarrassed, and said she can’t be doing that.
If you’re learning Ladino now, is it a novelty, or does it still have application?
The Turkish generation comes to America and their kids are Americanized, you know. Nobody’s learning Ladino now, anyway. Really the people who speak it are old Turks and old Greeks. I’d say it’s not dying because people are learning it as a novelty, but it’s definitely not native anymore.
What if you go back to the countries of origin for Ladino. Would you find thriving Ladino communities?
Not in all of them, no. With Turkey, I spoke Ladino with a woman at a synagogue, and they understand it but they don’t really speak it. They just don’t teach their kids. It also changed, too. Men probably made the first recordings of Ladino music, but then Ladino songs were about anything. People weren’t so attached to the old stuff. The songs that they sing now, that they think go back to Spain, probably don’t go back to Spain.
And what about the inspiration that Ladino pulls from for its musical style?
Usually it uses something in music, you call it contrafact, where you lift a melody or lyrics, and you impose them on something that’s already existing. I’ve seen tons of cases of the same lyrics being used with different melodies from different regions. That’s one thing I run into when I’m teaching. I’ll go into a song and realize that the lyrics don’t match well with the notes. You have to put two syllables on one note or something like that to make it work.
That reminds me of “shul hopping,” where my friends and I would join prayer at different temples in LA on Shabbat, and we knew the prayers, but the tunes changed in each congregation. Is it the same in that sense?
Yes, definitely. Ladino music probably comes from the same tradition. That’s what’s hard for me when I’m thinking about different Ladino songs. Often, they would take a popular tango or French song, and write Ladino lyrics to it.
What kind of audiences are listening to Ladino today, like is there a young audience?
No, probably not that many. I would say it’s our parents’ generation and older, more like our grandparents.
You can see Simone Salmón direct the Kantigas Muestras vocal ensemble at the next annual ucLADINO symposium which will take place in Royce Hall 314 on February 25-26, 2019.
Learn more about ucLADINO at their website, http://www.ucladino.com/home.
You can also contact the ucLADINO director, Max Modiano Daniel for current information and updates at [email protected].