I often listen to music in languages I don’t understand; the voice becomes another instrument. I can speak Spanish well enough to get directions for the local supermarket, order the meat I want, and ask the butcher to cut off the fish’s head. That’s about it.
But this isn’t Spanish; it’s Ladino, an endangered Sephardic Jewish language.
Nani says her grandmother spoke Ladino, but her father forbade conversing in “any other language but Hebrew. Instead, she sang some songs in the kitchen, in this mysterious dialect no one could understand. I still remember peeling beans with her, listening to the fascinating rhythms and hope that one day I’ll be able to sing them myself, as well as she did.”
If her father’s edict made Nani’s resolve all the stronger, we’re fortunate.
Nani (Noam Vazana) performed Puncha Puncha (from her 2021 album, Andalusian Brew) a cappella at the Folk Alliance Song Circle hosted by Dan Navarro. Joining Zoom from Amsterdam at some weird hour of night, her voice rang strong and clear across the globe. She then gave us a good lesson about Ladino, and the women who wrote the songs. She’s been answering all my questions over the past few months from Amsterdam, where she’s a professor at the London Performing Academy of Music and the Jerusalem Music Academy.
Me: Please tell me again what you explained on Zoom: that these songs were all written by women. What was the role of women like in Sephardic culture at the time the songs were written?
Nani: Ladino is a matriarchal language – both in scripture and in literature, you can find many mother-daughter dialogues and they are directly connected to Mediaeval Jewish culture. Back then, men were focused on learning Hebrew and Torah in the synagogue and since it was an isolated community, they didn’t make a lot of effort to converse with their surroundings.
The women stayed at home and had to learn the local languages, to haggle with merchants, exchange recipes and gossip – because that’s how you got news back then. Their recreational fruit such as songs and oral history convey the history of normal people! Not something that was written by the victors – just a genuine peek into daily domestic Jewish lives in the times of Columbus.
Me: I feel an extrapolation to Turkish pop music/production in the first track, Cok Seni Severim.
Nani: Yes, I chose this song to open the record because the biggest Ladino speaking community in the world is actually in Turkey! Not a lot of people know that, so I wanted to draw their awareness. This song is a mash up of a Ladino children song “If You See A Frog” and a traditional Turkish song “I Love You Too Much.”
Me: No Kero Madre is a song is so full of love and the tension of love, of survival. I keep replaying this one.
Nani: I wrote & composed this song myself. It’s a mother-daughter dialogue going against the arranged marriage tradition.
Ija mia te vo My daughter
haberes buenos I bring good news
dar a el alto dar a el alto A wealthy man
Djente de piron From the high society
dar a el alto Will propose to you
No kero madre no kero No mother, I don’t want that
Ke el es alto yo no l’alkanso For he only cares about wealth/and so emotionally detached
Djente de piron I don’t care for high society
No kero madre, no kero. No mother, I don’t want that
Me: Track 3, No Tiene Hija, No Tiene Amiga does fit into my limited Spanish vocabulary: don’t have a daughter; don’t have a friend. I was thinking about the connotations even before I played the song. This track is a perfect example of prosody. It spirals inwardly, defensively but triumphantly.
Nani: Thank you for the lovely prosody compliment! I wrote & composed this song myself as well 🙂 In the Sephardic culture the mother-daughter relationship is considered to be the highest form of love. This song banks on this intense connection that sometimes falters.
Pero yo sé, el que yuya, se cae
But I knew, the runaway always falls
Madre mia, nido mio
My mother, be my nest
Mira la casa, tome la vivre
Look at our home before you take its life
Quien no tiene hija, no tiene amiga.
Without a daughter, without a friend
Nani: I play the piano on Fada De Mi Korazon, and it’s one of my original songs. This song is about a ritual hosted by the parents of newborn girls to protect them from the bad fairies of the underworld. There’s a beautiful animation video where all the characters are made from pressed leaves & flowers. The video description also contains info about the ritual.
Me: Track 5, El Gacela, for me has a deep familiarity. Family. Familia. A root coming from the Latin concept of servitude.*** I need to circle back to this.
Nani: El Gacela is a poem by Shmuel Hanagid, a Jewish saint from the 11th century about homoerotic love. I composed the music for this track and played the piano.
Debemos pecar? En mí, señor, sea tu pecado
Should we sin? In me, sir, be your sin
Dame, por favor, la miel de tu lengua
Give me, please, the honey of your beloved tongue
Le quité sus ropas y él me quitó las mías.
I took off his clothes and he took mine.
Yo sorbía de sus labios Y él me amantaba.
I sipped from his lips And he loved me.
Track 7: Una Segunda Piel fits within my Spanish vocabulary: A Second Skin, so I was looking forward to seeing how it would play. It’s a hopeful, joyful song, like breaking out into the sunlight in a busy market, dancing. Inviting the shoppers to dance, too. (But that’s just my impression – Nani’s song Kuando El Rey Nimrod has a video of market-dancing!)
Nani: This is an original song of mine, and it speaks about an alternative passing away ceremony. You can find the video here – there’s a whole story about the ritual in the description.
Track 9 is Sin Dingun Ijo Varon: I had no comments because I got totally lost in it, pacing, dancing, moving around the room. I kind of don’t want to listen to anything else right now.
Nani: This is a very special song. A text I found from the 13th century about a transgender transformation. A teenage girl coming out to her parents, who don’t accept her but eventually her mom does. When I saw the text, I just KNEW I had to write music to it. So I did. This is probably my favourite song on the record.
Kaya, kaya tu mi ija,
Be quiet, be quiet my daughter,
k’ez verguenza i bizayon,
it’s an embarrassment and a shame,
Ya me muero la mi madre,
mother, I’m already dying,
ya me muero del amo
I’m already dying of love
Ke te are el mi ijo,
I will make you my son,
tiene echaz de varon
you have the makings of a man
Gracias a la Vida: I know this in Spanish, too. I appreciate the guitar intro here. The song reminds me of South American music – thanks to an Argentine friend, I got sucked into Chacarera and Gato. This song is coming across more like a battle cry than a message of love and tension. That makes it a great way to wrap the album: send us out into the world, ready to fight for what we love. OH, but this line: Cuando miro el fruto del cerebro humano. When I look at the fruit of the human brain…
Nani: The guitarist is from Chile – nicely spotted!
Me: I don’t typically like to get into technical terms, but what’s your vocal range?
Nani: Ah, it depends how you count 🙂 3.5 octaves + some whistle notes, so maybe 4.5 altogether.
Me: I’m just glad you have enough space to convey your whole heart.
***Something I’ve said previously is that Folk (music, art, everything) is born of the people who don’t have any money. It comes from our hearts, and it appeals directly to our hearts. The mechanics between are not necessary for it to survive. Servants. We serve each other, don’t we?
Nani: Folk is a way to dispel the illusion of separation; it could end racism.
Nani is touring North America in 2023. Mark your calendar for the dates nearest you:
11 NOVEMBER – Chutzpah Festival, Vancouver, CA
12 NOV – Calgary, AB, CA, TBC
14 NOV – ArtsPlace, Canmore, AB, CA
18 NOV – Toronto, ON, CA, TBC
Nani – Defending Endangered Culture with Fresh Music
Noam Vazana discusses Ladino language and culture, feminism, and nonbinary love through her album Ke Haber