Nani Vazana performs new Ladino songs in Canmore

Nani Vazana was in Alberta recently performing in Canmore. She is pictured here live at the Richmond, Virginia Folk Fest. Photo supplied.

By Irena Karshenbaum

(AJNews) – In an interview in early November from her home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Ladino singer and songwriter, Nani Vazana, evokes images of centuries past when men prayed in the synagogues of their Spanish villages while the women had to make their way in the market. Their Spanish imperfect, a paella of the local language tossed with spoonfuls of Hebrew, evolved into a language of its own, Judeo-Spanish, also known as, Ladino. It was this language — Vazana calls “matriarchal” because it was created by women — and used in their daily lives to share recipes and domestic knowledge, discuss mother-daughter relationships, secret desires and unattained loves, that with time flourished with poetry and songs.

Today, Ladino is considered a dying language because most of its speakers are over 70 years of age. Vazana, who in her 30s, not only speaks the language, but is believed to be the only person in the world who writes new songs in the dying language, and which are “reflective of millennial life,” as she explains.

It is a musical path that almost did not happen. Vazana’s father, who was either born in Vazan, Morocco or on a boat to Israel, (his exact place of birth is unknown due to the turbulent early years of the modern state of Israel), forbade his daughter to speak Ladino. She only did so in secret, when her father was not around, with her maternal grandmother, “Savta Mami,” from when she was four to the age 12, when her grandmother passed away.

Born in Be’er Sheva, Israel, Vazana’s musical journey did not begin with Ladino music, but had European musical origins. Vazana explains that she always knew she wanted to become a singer and songwriter. “My mother says that I was imitating opera singers in the shower when I was two or three years old and I asked for a piano when I was three.” It was a wish Vazana did not see fulfilled until she was 10, but she never stopped asking for the instrument while starting piano lessons at age five or six and having to use the piano at her conservatory. She took up playing the trombone because, as a child, she had a high-pitched voice and wanted to expand her range, which is now over three octaves. She became principal trombone player for the Ra’anana Symphony Orchestra, then moved to study at the Jerusalem Music Academy and then moved to Amsterdam to study at the Amsterdam Conservatory. It is where she decided to stay explaining, “The city is at a crossroads for many international musicians and is great for collaborations.”

While in her new home, Vazana was invited to perform at the Tangier Jazz Festival in Morocco and took the opportunity to visit her grandmother’s home town of Fez. Walking through the ancient streets, she heard a song her late grandmother used to sing to her. The song, called “Kuando El Rey Nimrod,” translated as “When Nimrod Was King,” was sang in Arabic, not in Ladino, but had the same melody, which she recognized. “I had flash backs and it became very special and from this moment I understood what the path was about for me.”

For two years Vazana took Ladino lessons to relearn the language and started to research Ladino music. She admits the music is hard to relate to because Ladino singers do a lot of “ornaments” with their voices, “So I created my own version of the classical songs and I started to perform and record them, but without the ornaments.” The collection of songs became her third album and her first work of traditional Ladino music called, “Andalusian Brew.”

Vazana performed this repertoire for three years, which took her to all continents around the world, except Australia.

She continues, “I started feeling it wasn’t enough to sing classical Ladino songs, so around 2018, I started writing my own songs in Ladino that are more reflective of modern life.” This work led to the making of her current album entitled, “Ke Haber,” translated as “What’s New.” She explains the title has a double meaning referring to the dying language and that it is also a common Ladino phrase, “It’s meant to preserve the language and make it current.”

In “No Tiene Hija No Tiene Amiga,” translated as “Without A Daughter, Without A Friend,” with music and lyrics by Vazana, she sings, “To rely on others is to be a fool / Better to be alone than in bad company / Whatever you say of another reflects yourself.” She writes in the notes to the album that the song is about the mother-daughter relationship and “that special female bond is highlighted and expressed as the highest value of friendship.”

“El Gacela,” translated as “The Gazelle,” with lyrics by Shmuel Hanagid and Moses ibn Ezra and music by Vazana, touches on the homoerotic. She writes in the notes to the album, “It was hard to find secular materials. I asked a rabbi at the Etz Chaim library and he showed me these 2 homoerotic poems from the 11th century, written by 2 Jewish rabbis who are considered saints. It’s amazing that we feel that we’re very new and modern and advanced, but it seems that we raise the same questions 1000 years later. And maybe society was even more open minded back in the middle ages?”

Vazana plays the piano and trombone when performing and considers herself a solo artist employing different musicians in different locations. She explains that “everything” inspires her music, “Every song is like a short movie that tells its own story.”

She says she cannot pick a favourite song, but specifically mentions “Sin Dingun Hijo Varon,” translated as “Without Any Sons,” which is included in “Ke Haber.” A song based on 11th century text, and one of the earliest examples in history of a song on a transgender subject, it uses sparse language to tell the story of a young girl who declares to her father that she will be a son he never had and her mother accepts her daughter, as her son. Vazana explains, “We think that as millennials we invented this, but this has been around for centuries. The feeling of looking for your identity has very strong meaning for us today.”

Vazana’s unique contributions to world music have been recognized by her performing at the Kennedy Centre and, in September of 2023, as part of her current world tour, her concert was recorded by the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.

Vazana performed in Canmore, Alberta on November 14 before traveling for concerts in Montreal on November 17 and Toronto the following day. In January of 2024, she will resume her world tour with 67 scheduled performances, at the time of this interview.

Irena Karshenbaum is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. She writes in Calgary.

Be the first to comment on "Nani Vazana performs new Ladino songs in Canmore"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.