Upon hearing the term ‘Judeo-Spanish’ in music we automatically think of Israeli singer Yasmin Levy. Her international acclaim in the BBC World Music Awards and the spotlight at WOMEX & WOMAD catapulted not only her career but also, Ladino culture and music into the limelight.
Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, is the collective term for the languages spoken by the Jews of Spain. After the expulsion in1492, the original Spanish of the time became infused with other languages including Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Slavic languages, and also Portuguese, French and Italian. This is a language that has developed through the story of migration and emigration, snowballing new words into its body as it’s people moved.
By the time Sephardim had travelled to the eastern Mediterranean it had picked up words beyond the Latin family, from the languages of the Balkans and Asia Minor. The Ladino spirit was strong but its decline in vigour coincided with the rise of European nationalism at the end of the 19th Century.
By the time the Nazi destruction of the Jewish communities of Greece and the Balkans occurred, the culture and language was dying as fast as its people. Today, there are estimated to be less than 200,000 speakers world-wide. In July 2002, UNESCO officially recognised Ladino and its variants as one of the world’s endangered languages.
Many grandmothers have passed on songs like ‘Almonds and Raisins’ to their grandchildren, singing lullabies to soothe them off to sleep, yet this is from an Ashkenazy tradition. Part of the tragedy of Ladino music is that much of this oral-tradition fell foul of its diverse Mediterranean spread.
In Europe the Yiddish speaking culture was also widespread yet it had a solid body to the language rooted in old German and Hebrew, coupled with the post-pogrom emigration to the US, Yiddish culture blossomed in New York where it is still very much alive to this day and was thus saved from the same tragedy that befell Ladino culture.
Yet it is London, who’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community stretches back a few hundred years that has given birth to a band that champions that heritage and has been creating quite a stir on the world music scene.
Los Desterrados are a London sextet who’s work champions Ladino culture and music. The bands members are Daniel Jonas (guitar, oud, vocals), Andrew Salida (guitar, flute, vocals), Jean-Marc Barsam (bass, saz, guitar, vocals), Hayley Blitz (vocals), Mark Greenfield (percussion; daf, darbuka, cajon, vocals) and Ariane Todes (violin).
Daniel Jonas formed the band back in 2000 after having lived in Brazil for 6 months. Daniel, who speaks fluent French and Portuguese, wanted to put his background and his knowledge into a musical project with meaning. He is the self-confessed “group fundamentalist” and a practising Sephardi Jew who brings the Sephardic and Middle Eastern influences to Los Desterrados.
He tired of playing the usual guitarists fayre and began to dream of his roots, searching for inspiration through his family’s own history and culture. This was the point of awakening at which his love affair with Sephardic music began. From that moment on he went to learn Flamenco guitar from a Spanish Gypsy which gave him a strong practical link to express his dreams and so the first spark of electricity began to revive the heart of Ladino culture with Los Desterrados.
“I was looking for an interesting form of Jewish music that wasn’t Klezmer – and about the same time I started learning Flamenco. I wanted to create something that could speak to people of my generation and help us to reconnect with a part of our heritage that we really haven’t known about” Daniel explains. “We always start with the original lyrics and melody.
Everything else is pretty much open for interpretation”.
The violinist Ariane is the classically trained member of the band who, according to family history, one of her ancestors was the doctor of Queen Elizabeth of Spain - which is how her family escaped persecution when the Sephardim were exiled.
After a year in formation, in 2001 the band recorded their first album, ‘Por Dos Levanim’ and with that work they began to create their own radical, rousing and rootsy take on the ancient folk music of the Sephardic Jews. Fusing Spanish Flamenco and the fiery Gypsy melodies of the Balkans and Greece with the rhythms of Morocco and Turkey, the end result is a truly Mediterranean sound that is wholly their own.
Whilst many fans of Jewish music will be familiar with the clarinet/violin-heavy Klezmer music of the Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jews, the music of the Sephardic Jews is less well known.
After the release of their first album the band had been steadily working their way across the UK and the world music scene at large. All this whilst writing material for their new album. On recently signed to London based world music label Crusoe records they have been scaling the national gig circuit with ever increasing record sales and notoriety for the quality of their work.
This coming New Year offers much promise for this band with a selection of concerts and a touring diary that is already filling up with offers from far and wide.
The bands latest release ‘Tu’ lives up to this reputation of a radical take on Sephardic music that can only serve to give artistic breath to the heart of Ladino culture’s faint pulse in the hope that one day soon this heart will beat strongly and be heard across the world again.
To fully experience Los Desterrados they have to be seen live. Equally at home playing the legendary Marquee club, jazz-haven Pizza on the Park, East London’s home for cutting edge music The Spitz, the home of the London Symphony Orchestra St Lukes or even Trafalgar Square, all crowds are won over by their exhilarating live shows.
Be sure that if you venture out in London, you do it when a Los Desterrados gig is on and let yourself get carried off in the Sephardic story, through time, across the sea and to a time and a place where a culture once blossomed to such colour that it was to thrive for another 500 years and perhaps even longer.
To find out more about Los Desterrados, listen to their music and be kept abreast of their live dates, please visit http://www.myspace.com/losdesterrados1