Two Ladino CDs
“Scalerica De Oro” (Little Stairway of Gold”) is an old Ladino wedding song. How old nobody knows for certain. Music scholars such as Edwin Seroussi emphasize that secular Ladino songs like “Scalerica” were transmitted by oral tradition until 100 years ago. Thus their origins are unknown. The traditional melodies are also unknown. Melodies of the Ladino music repertoire changed following contact with Ottoman traditional music; then later following contact with Western music; finally beginning in the early 20th century after commercial recordings of traditional Ladino songs.
The lyrics of “Scalerica” in English:
A little stairway of gold,
of gold and ivory
So the bride can go up
to take her kídushin (her wedding vows).
We will come to see,
we will come to see;
Joy and prosperity
and much good mazal may they have.
The bride has no dowry,
may she have good mazal.
The bride has no riches;
the bride has no money.
May she have great mazal.
We will come to see.
At first, we might not expect this wedding song to be set to a European club DJ remix, an edgy Israeli dance beat version or a Middle Eastern nightclub version. Those are the musical settings that we encounter “Scalerica” dressed in on two new Ladino music CDs.
The two dance versions come from Sarah Aroeste’s “Gracia” CD. Aroeste, who grew up in New Jersey Sephardic family, makes her musical career in the New York City area bringing updated versions of Ladino songs to young Jews and Latins. She’s billed (or bills herself) as a feminist Ladino rocker. That’s one way to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Aroeste’s CD contains both original and traditional songs. Yes, someone writing new songs in Ladino! The CD’s title song “Gracia” is a tribute to her ancestors and Dona Gracia Naci, a medieval Sephardic businesswoman and great community leader. The song contains vocal sample from a 1971 Gloria Steinem speech. Ladino as a vehicle for roots and feminism.
The contemporary world music direction on Aroeste’s latest album owes much to musical producer and arranger Shai Bachar. He’s an extremely versatile Israeli musician and producer, now also living in New York. Bachar fuses the music with hints of Andalusia, Mediterranean roots and Israeli Oriental pop. It’s a formula that works well for many contemporary Israeli, Arabic and European musicians where the music often obscures the texts.
The Middle East nightclub version comes from the Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble’s “East and West”. Davis, who also grew up in a Sephardic family, is a veteran of the Bay Area folk and Jewish music scenes. She put the production of “East and West”, her first Ladino recording, into the very capable hands of Avram Pengas. Houstonians will remember Pengas from his nightclub- style concert at the ERJCC last year.
Pengas did what he does best. He assembled a band of New York’s leading Israeli, Arabic and American Jewish club musicians and dressed the eight songs on the CD in Greek, Turkish and Balkan arrangements. The album contains two CDs: one with Davis’ vocals and one with instrumental versions of the tunes. These would be the sorts of pre-World War II and pre-Israel musical settings that an older generation of Ladino music fans might associate with the music.
Ladino, as a distinct Jewish language, faces a bleaker future than Yiddish. Outside of Israel, Ladino-speakers live mostly in mixed communities. None of the young people study Ladino in Jewish schools. Nor is there an equivalent of the ultra-Orthodox Yiddish-speaking community to preserve the language.
In Israel, Ladino secular and sacred songs are still performed in ethnic communities. Outside Israel, any musician who sings in Ladino is going to have to figure a way to reach a larger public. I think that Sarah Aroeste has found a way to build an audience although I don’t see dancehall versions of “Scalerica” as a way to preserve secular Ladino language and culture. I only see that happening in the area of sacred music, a form that values tradition and is deeply resistant to change.
“Gracia” is available by visiting saraharoeste.com. “East and West” is available by visiting ldlensemble.com