Episode Thirteen: Sephardic Traditions In Virginia
When Sephardic Jews were forced into exile from Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century, many settled in other Mediterranean countries but preserved their native language, Ladino. Flory Jagoda, who has been recognized as a critically important carrier of a unique musical heritage also composed and arranged new Sephardic songs. In 2002, Flory apprenticed singer Susan Gaeta of Burke, Virginia, with the Virginia Folklife Program, which blossomed into a lifelong friendship and musical partnership. Susan has now taken Flory’s music, along with traditional Sephardic songs, into new territories with a jazz fusion approach in her group Minnush. In this episode of Folklife Fieldnotes, we ponder taking traditional music into uncharted realms and how preserving the tradition with the program Where Our Roots Meet, while expanding on it, is an essential way to introduce old music to new audiences.
Pat Jarrett: I've been wondering lately about folk music as it adapts to modern Times. There is something to be said for keeping the old ways, preserving them exactly how they were, but we don't live in a vacuum. So this is really come to light with the work I've been doing with Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel of the band Minnush. They are a Sephardic Jewish band that's kind of a fusion band - they perform in Ladino, which is judeo-español, which is an endangered language according to UNESCO. Gina Sobel is one of the singers and the flute player for Minnush. She apprenticed under Susan Gaeta, who was in the first cohort of master and apprentices for The Virginia Folklife Program and she apprenticed under Flory Jagoda, who was known as the keeper of the flame. She came to United States after World War Two after surviving the Holocaust. She was in a Sephardic Jewish family near Sarajevo and was able to escape thanks to her music. Her father told her to get on the train, without a ticket with her accordion. He said, take your accordion and don't stop playing and she played songs the entire train ride was never asked for a ticket. Everybody was singing along with her. She credited her survival to the music and until the day she died she had her student accordion, the one that she played on that train, at her home in Northern Virginia. She's an amazing human. Her voice was so beautiful and she sang in Ladino and that's how Susan learned these songs from Flory.
Chris Boros: Is it safe to say that this music and that accordion saved her life?
CB: And her father knew that the music was going to get her here.
PJ: And tragically her family was wiped out in the Holocaust. It's such a tragedy and we were so lucky to know Flory - she passed away just a couple of years ago. And she made sure to sing her songs all over the world and we are so lucky for that. She was a friend of the Folklike Program. She was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship which is the highest honor that the United States can bestow upon a traditional artist.
CB: In that recording we just heard, she was in her 80s, right?
PJ: That's correct.
CB: That voice is still perfect.
PJ: Her voice is eternal. I'm at a loss of words to describe her voice.
CB: It’s youthful.
PJ: And what I noticed at the Richmond Folk Festival, it was early in the day and Flory, she spoke so softly and sang so beautifully that everybody in the audience was leaning forward in their chair just to get a closer take on the songs. It was something to behold.
CB: You met her personally?
PJ: I did.
CB: Do you have any recollections of meeting her?
PJ: She was small physically, but her presence was gigantic and she showed her love and she showed that she cared by how she greeted you and how she connected with you. She had a specific way of teaching, so Susan tells me that she was a strong teacher. Even Gina had one lesson, one or two lessons, and she said, wow - your trill is wrong here, you got to do this here, so she was at a little bit of a taskmaster, which is great. I love it. But that kind of gets to the core of what Susan is doing with the music because Susan has carried it on faithfully with her group Trio Sefardi. They've been playing in the northern Virginia area for years and years and it's Howard Bass and Tina Chancey are her collaborators in that. The other thing that Susan is doing is that she is collaborating with her apprentice Gina on this fusion band Minnush. And that is like a jazz fusion group. They bring a lot of different influences to the traditional music and they're not afraid of letting those influences seep in. And Gina has something really interesting to say about that.
Gina Sobel: Wherever this music goes - Sephardic music, other kinds of Folk Music - it picks up the influences of the people who play it and their background. And they may not only be isolated with that one kind of music, they have other things coming in. So for me, that's jazz and it's funk, and that's American folk music. And so that's kind of how we are. And for Susan, that’s jazz and all these other influences as well, Argentinian music, tango music, and things like that. We sort of feed that in Minnush. These are our voices. We're singing this music, let's bring our voices to it, our own cultural and musical backgrounds and that's just I think one of the things that makes it really fun, we're telling stories that are relevant and playing them with some fun music.
PJ: I think it's really interesting - this concept of bringing your own voice to a very traditional music, and I think they do a beautifully.
CB: Well, the only way that traditional music can survive is if it involves and changes to some degree.
PJ: To some degree. You're absolutely right. And Gina said, the first time I learned about Flory Jagoda was in my textbook. She was studying ethnomusicology, and there's a photograph of Flory right in her textbook and she goes, how do I not know about this person and sought her out.
CB: What do you think Flora Jagoda would think about this fusion?
PJ: Flory was interesting. Susan talks about how Flory’s music that she wrote, her original tunes, specifically there's one called Ocho Kandelikas which is a Hanukkah song, and that is her most famous song. It is sung worldwide, people know it all over the place. Susan said that one time she heard a heavy metal version of Ocho Kandelikas.
Susan Gaeta: I was listening to NPR once and they do a Hanukkah program and Flory’s most famous song is a Hanukkah song called Ocho Kandelikas and it's sung worldwide and it's performed by many groups. It's very very famous. So a heavy metal band was singing Ocho Kandelikas in this program on the radio. And I called her up and I said Flory, tune in to NPR. You've got to hear this. They were screaming and it was so far from that original sound and she said to me, I love it because they're singing in Ladino. Any way of continuing this music I think she appreciated. I think she would have things to say about it, but I think she would really appreciate that it's this venue to be able to continue her music in such a different way.
CB: It's like what did Bill Monroe think when he first heard The New Grass Revival, was it the same type of thing?
PJ: Sure. Folk music adapts. Like Gina said, it's like a sponge. And people will be influenced and people express.
CB: I think too if it doesn't adapt, it will be harder to find a new audience. For instance, the band that changed my life was Steeleye Span. This is a band that plays old English folk music, but with distorted 1970s electric guitar. And so if my uncle would have played me Ewan MacColl from the 50s singing these songs acapella, I would have rolled my eyes, but because I was a 17 year old kid who loved Alice Cooper, when I heard this music with a rock mentality, I was hooked. So thank the Lord that someone took this old traditional music and modernized it to a degree or I never would have found it.
PJ: That's an interesting concept. That got you into old English folk tunes? Let's talk about that for a minute because Trio Sefardi played with a group called The Elias Ladino Ensemble. And Daniel Elias leads that ensemble. We've been in touch with Zack Youcha and they are involved in this project to preserve the Sephardic Jewish music of Bitola, an area of Macedonia. At the time, it was known as Monastir. Now the music from there is very specific and it just so happened that Daniel came across some reel-to-reel tapes of his grandmother who came from there singing these songs as she heard them in Monastir. And they are working on a project to preserve this music. The project is called Where Our Roots Meet. And before the concert I talked with Zack about preserving this music as it was performed and why that was important.
Zack Youcha: I'm sitting there wondering what was this place? Who are these people that, you know, I come from. That was kind of the starting impetus and then as I go further into my research and into the work, there are a lot of communities who even after the Holocaust certain number of people survived and with Monastir, 98% of the Monastery were killed in the Holocaust. And so really the people who are left were the people who had left before and those communities by and large in order to survive just as Sephardic Jews had to combine with other communities. So then you kind of get this slow watering down and distancing from the roots of it all, which is why my project is called Where Our Roots Meet.
CB: In order to survive, they had to combine the musics.
PJ: It wasn't quite that - it's more that in combining with other Sephardic Jews, they got further away from their regionality. And because 98% of them were wiped out without proper preservation and proper research, the kind of music that is home could easily just be forgotten and almost was. But for them finding this recording of Daniel’s grandmother Shorty Elias. And it was digitized and preserved. It's that kind of digitization and preservation that’s so important because those could be lost. And a lot of these tapes, you can get one last play out of them and they will disintegrate. The media doesn't hold up forever. We have to make sure that these are looked after and these recordings are saved from going away.
CB: So, how did they find this old reel-to-reel tape?
PJ: They found these tapes in a basement.
Zack Youcha: After Joe Elias passed away, he left a basement just full of stuff, instruments, and a lot of junk. But among the things we're stacks and stacks of reel-to-reel recordings that he made over the years and we didn't really know what was on them, so we started playing them and a lot of them are just kind of random recordings of people he knew, family events, things like that. Then on one of these reels, we heard this woman just singing these songs beautifully in ladino and Danny goes, oh my God, that's my grandma. She's singing very clearly these amazing songs and so we digitize the reel, did some audio engineering – they’re 60 years old so we had to really doctor them up but it worked, they sound quite nice now. Eventually arrived at the idea that it might be nice to remaster those recordings and then go through and find the recordings that the Elias Ladino Ensemble, starting with Joe in the 70s, played which songs were from Monastir and which songs came from Shorty Elias and then make a CD of that too. And then do a CD of the third generation with Danny playing those songs and since then it’s kind of grown into, well, let's try and find out all the songs that we can prove came from Monastir and make a songbook with transcriptions and historical intros so people can read about the community and read about the history, read about the songs, read about the effect and the prominence of music in the life of the Monastir Jews.
PJ: What I found interesting about this is that we have two sides of the coin here. We have the argument for preserving without changing and then we have the argument for changing and adapting all within this very specific vein of folk music in Virginia, and I just think it's a beautiful thing.
CB: What do you think? Should we mess with this music and make it new again or not?
PJ: I think it's both.
CB: Yeah, I think so too.
PJ: Like you said, you found Steeleye Span and that got you into these old English folk songs. I can tell you from my experience, I listened to Paul Simon's Graceland as a kid and that got me. And then the next Paul Simon album I listened to, I went where did the band go? I loved that band. I didn't know what I was listening to until I found out about Highlife music and people like Fela Kuti. So hearing that accessible top layer allowed me to dive deep. And now I'm just all about these polyrhythmic 70s psychedelic artists that are bands like Green Arrows Band - and that are so jangly you can’t even find them on any streaming service. So I think it's a "yes and." I think these are two elements of folk music that need to be supported.
Susan Gaeta: Flory’s mission for herself in her life was to continue it. And I think it's to honor her family and to just continue an incredible musical tradition that she heard from her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. To continue it is really important to keep it alive. Because so much of the culture was decimated. My mission as a master artist with Virginia Humanities is to tell her story.
PJ: And if people are interested in this work, they can go to VirginiaFolklife.Org. And if they’d like to help us they can make a donation to the Flory Jagoda Sephardic Music Fund. We actually have a fund for research and scholarship to continue this work.
Susan Gaeta: The idea of working with Gina to keep it alive, to keep it relevant and to keep a younger generation interested in learning about it and hearing about it. And so we can do a variety of things, including educate people about the story. I think what's interesting about our team is that we can show something really authentic being that I’m just one step away from Flory and I spent so many years working with her, that's even a bit of authenticity. And then to have it develop and kind of evolve with what Gina brings to it. We're in a unique place to do this. And the idea of the continuation, which is the most important thing about this music for me, and for Flory, and I think we have an opportunity to do that.