Two new albums by Flory Jagoda

by Judith Cohen

lovely wraparound cover

Flory Jagoda

available online from Empowered Women International, 2006

I adore Flory Jagoda. Not the most orthodox way to begin a review of a CD, but the fact remains—to me, Flory is not only a wonderful singer, musician and songwriter, not only the "nona" of Sephardic songs, but also a loving, caring, thoughtful—and funny, when she wants to be—friend, mother, wife, grand-mother, teacher, human being. In 2004, when I had to be in Washington, I had supper at her apartment, and she said—at almost 80—she was thinking of writing a different type of song, something more serious, more connected to her darker memories and thoughts, the Holocaust, the state of the world. Two years later, I found myself in D.C. again, and Flory came to my concert at the Alan Lomax symposium—there, in the Library of Congress, she gave me her two new CDs, one with the much-appreciated Moroccan-Argentinian singer and cantor Ramon Tasat, and her own: as she puts it, the fourth of a four-volume set.

Flory writes brief notes at the beginning, about the need, as one grows older, to share painful memories, and also the happy ones. She situates this as her final (she says but one can hope otherwise) CD in the series: the first, "Songs of my Grandmother", then "Memories of Sarajevo", then "The Grandmother Sings" with herself in the role, and finally "Arvoliko:, "The Little Tree" which is, she tells us, the only marker of the mass grave of 42 massacred members of the Altaras, Flory's own family.

The liner notes signal the presence of family members and friends—Betty Jagoda Murphy, Flory's older daughter, and Josh Murphy; Flory's younger daughter Lori Jagoda Lowell and her children Alec and Ariel; and friends Susan Gaeta, now closely associated with Flory as a singer, Betsy Carey, Howard Bass, Alan Oretsky, Tina Chancey (my friend and much-admired colleague in Early Music) and Scott Reiss on recorder and percussion—a bittersweet presence for those of us who knew him and were devastated to hear of his suicide a short time ago.

The CD opens with pensive bars on the guitar, and Flory's voice, pitched a little lower than usual, pensively, singing Isak Papo's "Saray de Oro" (Golden Sarajevo), set to Flory's own music: the author had sent her this poem asking her to compose a melody for it. "I watch television with an anxious soul, my golden Sarajevo is being destroyed ... yesterday they were friends and good neighbors, cruel politics has destroyed everything, completely changing the people...", Papo wrote at eighty years old.

"Spalato de Noche" (Split at Night) is Flory's translation of a Dalmatian song, a love song about this pretty port city—but Flory's notes relate it to World War II, noting that Spehardim arrived there in the 15th century and had to leave it during the Holocaust. "La biraba de mujer", by Flory, is a lovely a capella sung prayer which some of have heard her sing in concert. "La Kreasyon" is from Genesis, set to music and sung by Flory (with a faintly Yiddish tinge to the music); she then sings her "Rikordas de mi nona" (Memories of my grand-mother), and her musical version of an old wedding song "Oildo mi novia". The optimism of a wedding song is fleeting here; the next song—with an inset of the young Flory and her accordion—is another new composition by Flory, the title song "Arvoliko", whose lyrics are:

"How many years must I wait
to forget the pain of war?
How many times can we travel
to foreign lands to find peace?
to find peace and forget the pain.
Little tree in the mountain
constantly calls me to tell the truth
to tell the cruel truth."

The often-sung "La pastora" comes next; its ending "she chose another and I lost her" reminiscent of the emblematic Bosnian sevdalinka "Kad ja podjoh", anthough Flory doesn't allude to it. A version of the "Sacrifice of Isaac" follows, and then the "Trees cry for rain" , a love song, but also associated with the little-known Sephardic Holocaust experience. After "Raguza (Dubrovnik)" features words by Bonchi Papo, ending "Farewell Raguza, my dear city", the album ends with "Un kavretiko", Had Gadya. Flory, incapable of ending on a sad note, writes the longest note of the album here, talking about Pesakh in her childhood, and how "it is a blessing for me to see my own grandchildren's enjoyment as they compete to sing the whole song and laugh throughout the verses."

My only small criticism of this beautiful, pensive recording is that the liner notes are very hard to read, small print on a dark background. On the other hand, that makes the photos of Flory at four stages of her life, from a baby through the present, stand out more. In my review of Ankica Petrovic's moving video about Flory, The Key from Spain (Ethnomusicology 46/1, 2002:194-6), I suggested that one of the best aspects of the film was the directors' allowing Flory to speak for herself. In this album, one has the feeling she is singing directly to a group of family and friends.Thanks, Flory, for this gift.

nice calligraphy

Flory Jagoda and Ramón Tasat
Kantikas de amor i vida: Sephardic Duets

available online from Tara Records, 2006

This is an interesting combination of voices: two friends and colleagues with decades of difference in their ages, from two different continents, meeting in a third. Neither Flory nor Ramón need introductions here; both are well known and justly appreciated for their respective work in Sephardic song. Here, both sing and play guitar, with guest percussionist Steve Boom. The liner notes are in Ladino and English. There are a couple of problems with songs presented in a different order from where they are heard on the CD, and it isn't always clear in the liner notes what is traditional and what is composed, especially in the case of the melodies.

The album opens with a setting of a poem by Abraham Kapon in the early 20th century, about the love for Spain of the Sephardim,sung in a sentimental Latin American style. I know one isn't supposed to disparage anything composed in Ladino, but must say that this poem strikes me as maudlin and rather vacuous. The well-known romance "Porque lloras" (La partida del marido) is sung as a dialogue between the parting husband and the about-to-be-abandoned young wife and mother. Here and elsewhere on the CD, Ramón sensitively adjusts his considerable vocal range to meld effectively, for the most part, with Flory's gentle voice.

Other selections include settings of folk proverbs; the hopelessly sentimental "Quen me va querer a mi", and a lesser-known version of "A la una". "Si topa grasia", a women's prayer for the Days of Awe, is for me the most beautiful of the songs, but I would rather hear it as it opens, a capella sung by Flory, without the drumming and guitar riffs which, to me, detract from rather than add to her subtle singing here. "Yo la keriya" is, as the notes rather redundantly inform us, is a "real tear-jerker", and "Yo deshi Espanya" adds another sentimental evocation of the lost Spain.. "Oildo mi novya" is a Bosnian version, in 7/8 metre, of a wedding sung also sung by Bulgarian and Turkish Sephardim. "Yehi Ratsones" for some reason works better for me than most of the duets. "La murtaja" (the shroud) is an old song, the notes say, about a young man who worries he won't have a sweetheart to tear his shroud: here the explanations of the custom of sewing the shroud are, at least to me, more interesting than the song itself. "Printsezita" is a tango, very appropriate for Argentinian-born Ramón, and which works very well with his voice and singing style. "El Dio alto" closes the album, with the beautiful old Bosnian tune also used for the classic Bosnian sevdalinka "Kad ja podjoh".

Flory, with her usual acumen, said to me, "You may not like this one so much", and added, "I want you to be honest." So, I will confess, I do appreciate it, especially the collaborative musicianship of these two artists and friends, but don't in fact especially like it. It's in a very sentimental style, both music and delivery, which doesn't appeal to me, but this is entirely subjective: I recognize that the very attributes which do not endear it to me will probably appeal to many listeners.

Sent to the KlezmerShack by Judith Cohen on 10-Feb-2006. Email Judith Cohen

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