Sunday , May 26 2024
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Interview: Nani Vazana, Ladino Songstress – Part One


Nani Noam Vazana is not your typical singer/songwriter. For one thing she sings in a language very few of us are familiar with: Ladino. The language of Sephardic Jews who lived in Spain prior to their expulsion from that country in the 15th century, it now only exists in small pockets in Turkey and Israel. 

Her recordings, including her most recent Ke Haber (What’s New), are a mixture of adaptations of texts from the times Jews thrived in Spain, arrangements of older Ladino songs from Turkey, Europe and North Africa, and original songs by Vazana. This album is more than just a slavish reproduction of museum pieces, but a way of making sure the language doesn’t disappear into the sands of time. That it also happens to be a wonderful collection of music and lyrics makes it all the more special.

I was able to catch up with Vazana in between her concert engagements all over the world. She’s just finished a series of concerts in Europe and is heading out on the road again soon. This is Part One of our interview. 

Let’s start with some biographical details. Where were you born and what were your early influences? Was there music in your life as a child, or did you come to it later in life?

When you’re a child people ask you what you’d like to be when you grow up. My answer was always “I want to travel the world with my songs.” Not that I knew how to write songs for that matter, or that I knew how to go about becoming a musician, but I knew I wanted to write songs and to play music. And travel the world. 

For my third birthday I requested a piano and kept asking for it till my parents caved [when I was] five. I didn’t get a piano of my own, but they agreed to enroll me at a local music school and I could go practice there after school.

I remember sitting at the piano for hours and just playing all kinds of sounds. I couldn’t read notes yet, so I didn’t know these were actually chords and clusters, but I was deeply tuning in to the different textures, and imagining each note and register colored the palette, like different instrument in a symphony orchestra.

Music school was about classical composers, and quite quickly I was taken through Salieri and Haydn before I was allowed to attempt more challenging repertoire such as Bach and Debussy. Our school had a choir and an orchestra and I enrolled for both. I never got to play a solo, but I was sure that if I practiced and persevered it would come one day. 

In the meantime I also started composing simple melodies, but lyrics were harder to master. So I found myself reading and writing a lot of poetry to get the hang of rhymes, structures, also rhythms and generally a vocabulary in writing and articulation. This also meant I spent a lot of time alone as a child, because I was very invested in songwriting from an early age, my parents didn’t like that much, and they often asked me to stop playing / reading / writing and “go watch TV like a normal kid” 🙂 No one in my family plays music, so I guess it was a bit of a foreign idea for them for a child to want to seek this path. 

Ladino is not what you’d call a well-known language. Can you give readers a brief history of its origins, where it was spoken, and by whom? My mother’s family were from Poland and Romania so that was Yiddish – is it fair to say that Ladino with its mixture of Spanish and Hebrew evolved in the same way, out of contact and necessity?

Ladino is the language of the Sephardic Jews, who used to live in the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages. It’s a Latin, or a Romance language if you will, and it sounds a lot like Spanish. You could call it the “Spanish Yiddish,” as Ladino and Spanish share a similar relationship to the one shared between Yiddish and German.

In the time of Columbus the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal and found refuge in the Ottoman empire, the north of Africa and the Balkans. This is why Ladino has all kinds of influences too and words and expressions from other languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Bosnian, Greek, Bulgarian and many more. 

My grandmother was Moroccan and I learned Ladino from her, mostly in hiding, because my father forbade us from speaking Ladino at home. His family escaped Morocco in the ’50s and I guess he wanted to leave the past behind. But luckily my grandmother was stubborn, but in a very nice manner. She always got her way, but she got it in grace and always with a smile.

So when I was left alone with her we would usually cook, and she would often sing traditional songs or teach me words for some kitchen appliances. And if my father would come in unexpectedly and “catch us” speaking Ladino, she would just mumble something like “I always sing when I cook” and smile, so then get away with it. I learned a lot from her, unknowingly. 

You mentioned your interest in Ladino was awakened by your Moroccan grandmother. That sounds like a fascinating story – can you elaborate?

My Nona (grandma) passed away when I was 12 and [she] got sick several years before that, so my experience with her was limited. Once she died I lost my connection to Ladino, and I went on to study classical music and completely immersed myself in more Western culture and literature. I started performing internationally and released two albums in English. 

Then an invitation came from a jazz festival in Tangier, Morocco. It was my first visit to the motherland so I went to see my grandma’s home town, Fez. There on the street I heard people singing a song that reminded me of a melody that my grandma sang to me when I was four years old. It’s a very powerful feeling to remember such a distant moment in your past and memories and thoughts came rushing in. This was the beginning of my journey back into Ladino, because it opened a gate of interest I didn’t know I had. 

This longing brought a two-year [project of] research for old melodies and interviews with family members, to try and salvage something about my grandma’s past. I found out that my mom’s sister also spoke Ladino, but I don’t recall ever hearing her speak it before. A part of this research also took me into Ladino literature, folk tales and Sephardic customs and beliefs, which were surprisingly very pagan, even though Sephardic Jews define themselves as orthodox.

My Nona told me stories that no other kid knew about. When I asked my mother where the stories came from she said my grandma had made them up. Only later when I started researching Ladino literature I found out a lot of these stories were actually Sephardic folk tales. 

For instance my song “Fada de Mi Korazon” (Fairy of My Heart) is based on the fairytale ‘”Las Fadas.” It’s about the bad fairies of the underworld who come up at night and try to snatch newly born baby girls. In order to protect them, the parents and family host a ceremony where they stand in a circle and pass the baby from hand to hand. When the baby ends up in your lap you bless her by embodying the spirit of a good fairy, in order to fool the bad fairies into thinking the baby was protected by good fairies.

Our interview concludes in Part Two.

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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