Sunday , May 19 2024
Nani Vazana - Ladino singer songwriter

Interview: Nani Vazana, Ladino Songstress – Part Two


This Part Two of my interview with Nani Vazana, Ladino singer, songwriter, and scholar. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s Part One.

Why create and sing songs in what is basically a dead language – one that’s not spoken or used in writing?

Ladino is one of the most influential European languages in the world – it traveled such a distance and touched so many cultures – Europe, Africa, Asia and America all harbor small Ladino communities and their effects on culture have been amazing. Many famous folk songs were actually originally written in Ladino and later on translated into other local languages. 

From my personal point of view, art is a reason by itself, and it doesn’t necessarily need an explanation. Ladino is such a pretty language and I can’t stop it from dying out. But if I can stall it a little bit by creating something positive inspired by its sounds and stories, then I feel I’m compelled to do this and share the riches Ladino has to offer with the rest of the world. Especially, with people my age that might be looking for their own roots too.

Where do you find your inspiration for the songs you create – the musical styles and the lyrics? Are there other artists, historical or contemporary, whose repertoire you can look to, or do you look to history and contemporary Sephardic culture for ideas?

I believe that ideas are just like living creatures. They want to exist just like we do. And that can only be achieved by collaborating with humans. When artists say they are feeling “inspired,” it’s actually an idea that comes and whispers in our ear and makes our hair stand on end. I believe that Ladino songs come to me because they know I’ll listen to them and help them come alive. And I know that they will keep on coming as long as we keep a good relationship with that inspiration.

That being said, you can’t just sit around and wait for lightning to strike you. You need to cultivate a technique and a voice as a writer, as the good ideas will only come for those who are capable of expressing them. So sometimes you’ll be working on your craft for years and nothing will happen, but sometimes there are beautiful moments where you feel goosebumps and you know you’re about to witness something beautiful rushing through your consciousness – and that you have got to stop everything and listen carefully so you can express this idea in the best way possible. This is what it means to be inspired.

Then a part of your craft as a writer is also based on research. When I started writing in Ladino my knowledge of the language wasn’t advanced yet. So I searched for existing texts I could compose music for. The majority of the available literature in Ladino is religious and so it was hard to find secular texts. However, a rabbi in Leiden (the Netherlands) showed me some ancient homoerotic poetry written by 11th-century Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid (Samuel ibn Nagrella) and 12th-century Rabbi Moses ibn Ezra. 

Combining these texts, and composing new music, I created a new song titled “El Gacela” (“The Gazelle”) which is also on my new album Ke Haber. I chose to compose the music in a very old-fashioned way, and so most people who hear the song think it’s actually a traditional song from the Middle Ages. 

You asked about other artists I look up to, and that’s a difficult question to answer. I grew up listening to classical masters but also singer-songwriters such as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Sting but it’s already been 20 years that I’ve tried to detach myself from other composers’ work as much as possible, because I want to approach songwriting from a completely clean slate. Other people’s ideas might take up too much headspace and interfere with being able to hear the ideas that come and want to exist through me, so I hardly listened to any recorded music in the last two decades. 

I do visit a lot of live concerts, because the live experience is unique and exists within a time frame. You can’t replay the live show afterwards which is very good for a composer not to get stuck on a repeat. 

Do you need to find musicians of a particular musical background to accompany you? I hear Flamenco and other musical stylings associated with Spain and North Africa on your latest release. I don’t think you can just put out ads in the musical press saying you’re looking for musicians familiar with Ladino musical stylings.

A musical style is a tool to convey emotion; that’s not necessarily the same as the characteristic of the language. In the current album I did use Flamenco guitar and Latin American percussion for several songs, but it’s because the songs were calling for the use of these musical instruments. Certain songs and sometimes certain albums call for a certain way of expression, so I can’t say that my next album will have the same influences.

When playing live or recording I of course have to find people who are schooled in the arts I’d like to present, in order for them to sound true. However all musicians I play with are usually recommended by other musicians or are people I already know personally and met at festivals and music conferences. It’s important to know someone first-hand before you go on tour with them and before you dive into an album recording. You’ll be spending a lot of time in close spaces and you want to make sure they are great humans as well as good musicians before you hit the road or enter the studio. 

How are the songs on your latest release, for example, a reflection of Sephardic culture and not a collection of tracks sung in an obscure language? What makes them unique to a specific tradition?

My album doesn’t convey tradition on a whole, it’s more of a timepiece written from a Millennial perspective. If you attempt to write a timepiece from the point of view of someone who used to live in the Middle Ages you’ll never succeed, because you’ll always strive to imitate something that isn’t your own. But writing from my own modern point of view while dealing with old texts and themes might convey a more realistic and honest point of view, which is what I attempted with Ke Haber.

Each of the songs on the record is like a short film, and they each take you on a journey into a narrative, from beginning to end – I’m a very thematic writer! An album is a format that takes the listener on a real journey. Each of the five albums I recorded has a very clear narrative and each and every song and arrangement is carefully curated to create a colorful tapestry that yields an experience, or even escapism into a parallel reality for the length of the record. 

Some of the songs are about traditions, like “Una Segunda Piel” (“A Second Skin”) which I wrote and composed about a Sephardic retirement ceremony where your family and friends sow around you the shroud of the dead. Now this sounds very morbid, but it’s actually symbolizing rebirth – because while you’re in this cocooned state, you’re supposed to meditate and think about all the troubles you want to leave behind. When sowing is finished, the cloth goes in the cupboard and you emerge as the best version of yourself. This is changing the narrative from death to rebirth.

Another surprising song on the album is “Landarico” which combines new music I composed to an ancient text. This is about a king and a queen waking up on the morning of their 50th anniversary, seeing each other’s reflections in the mirror and reminiscing about all the beautiful moments they were lucky to spend together. The track has a very regal but also desolate atmosphere, enhanced by four trombone parts which I arranged and played and then sang the vocals on top. 

You’re in the midst of what seems to be a world tour – how does the reception to your music differ depending on the audience?

The music is always received in the same way – with a lot of love and wonder! This is what our souls desire – more and more wonder. As long as we can keep this naïveté with each other I’m sure things will be good. When we approach things with prejudice or discomfort the outcome will be similar or worse. No matter where I go, I feel that my audience comes with an open heart and I do too.

What do you hope your music will accomplish? Do you have a specific goal in mind with your performances and recordings?

I hope that by sharing my story of roots-seeking I can inspire other Millennials to search for their own roots. The generation of our parents were the first migrants in the world that actually achieved a better life for their families; but their past was so hard that they wanted to melt down their identities and reconstitute themselves as new people in a new state, wherever they went. My generation was always told to forget about the past. But when I write in Ladino I feel I’m looking into the past to see the future. We carry this love in us wherever we go.

Thank you to Nani Vazana for this in-depth and fascinating interview. She’s constantly touring and performing so go to her website and check out when she’ll be near you. Watching her live will be an experience you don’t want to miss.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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