While the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition is a convenient rhetorical device for teens looking to lash out at adults possessing the audacity to seek information from them, for Jews in the Spanish Empire, it meant choosing between leaving their homes, converting, or death. Those Jews uncomfortable with the latter two options moved to places like North Africa and the Mediterranean, a diaspora within a diaspora, creating a new Jewish community, the Sephardim. Singer/songwriter/violinist Lily Henley pays tribute to Sephardic musical traditions with Oras Dezaoradas, an album of Sephardic songs sung in the Ladino language.
This project is a bold enterprise. Most American Jews are Ashkenazim, with roots in western, central, and southern Europe and a linguistic history of Yiddish, which is a combination of German and Hebrew, with aspects of other local languages folded in over time. While Yiddish is still spoken, it’s rare, and most people only know some words through popular culture references or elderly family members. Ladino is based on Medieval Spanish and is even less common within Jewish communities. So Henley is presenting some deep cuts by interpreting songs in this tradition and carrying it forward by writing new songs in the style.
Luckily, and sadly, loneliness is an easily understandable language. I’m not familiar with the original songs, but it sounds like Henley has fleshed out the universal touches in these tunes, to remind the listener that styles like Celtic and roots music are often about people who aren’t where they truly want to be. Lyrically, the songs aren’t all explicitly about being a person without a land, but the underlying sadness, augmented by the Ladino, which sounds like Spanish, but is also unfamiliar, feels like seeing a stranger crying and instantly empathizing.
Delving into the translated lyrics, though, helps to make the songs even more poignant. On “Arvoles Lloran Por Lluvia,” or “Trees Cry for Rain,” a simple tune relying upon voice, guitar, and mandolin, and made more haunting with cello, Henley sings: “I lament and wonder / What will happen to me? / On foreign lands I have come to die / I have come only to die.” The lyric is about a specific historical moment, but it’s also wildly appropriate for too many subsequent world moments. And even without the translation, you feel, and understand, the sadness.
“Duermite Mi Alma,” or “Sleep My Darling,” has a modern melody, occasionally veering into Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” territory. Duncan Wickel’s violin reinforces the song’s hook, rooting it in so many musical traditions. Was it an Appalachian fiddle break? Slowed-down klezmer? It sounds timeless but not old-fashioned.
Henley threads a very thin line, making these ballads sound contemporary but maintaining their integrity. Which is another impressive thing about this collection of songs: They sound authentic, even though few of us know the original material. “Morena Me Yaman,” or “Wild Girl, They Call Me,” has an off-kilter groove and a melody that sounds North African. One assumes it came out of Sephardim adopting the rhythms they heard in their new lives and synthesizing it into their own music. But were those influences always there or is Henley doing her own cross-pollination? The answer probably matters to ethnomusicologists but not to the listener. It’s all a credit to Henley’s sensitivity to this forgotten and overlooked material.
You don’t need to understand the Jewish diaspora to appreciate these songs. They’re lovely without context. But knowing the events that helped to build them over time makes them both sweeter and more touching. Not just for Sephardim, but for all people living in exile.
Oras Dezaoradas is out May 6 on Lior Éditions.