About this Recording
8.573566 - Counter-tenor Recital: d'Or, Yaniv (Latino Ladino - Songs of Exile and Passion from Spain and Latin America)
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Latino Ladino
Songs of Exile and Passion


Exile is a condition in which long periods of peace and prosperity are followed by short episodes of brutal removal and cruelty. Beauty and love thrive during the former, ugliness and hatred during the latter. An artistic culture especially of music and poetry, grown and developed during the peace, sustains the exiles during persecution. Peace is what we all wish for and we say so in the traditional ‘peace be with you’ greeting among Jews—Shalom aleichem—and Arabs—Salaam aleikum—the language of which confirms a common family origin. Both descend from Abraham as do Christians who in their official nightly prayers at Evensong also acknowledge him as their vicarious ancestor. Yaniv d’Or’s programme celebrates this shared heritage in the beauty of song.

The chilling threat to convert or die is not new. It was issued by bullying fifteenth-century Christians in Spain to exiled Jewish and Muslim communities, most of whom took an unspoken third option to leave the country, creating the Sephardic diaspora around the Mediterranean. Among them were Yaniv d’Or’s forebears who landed at Libya where they remained until the twentieth century. Others found their way back to the Holy Land, then under Turkish rule, where the Jews joined a small community at the holy city of Safed in Galilee. They established a centre for Kabbalah, Jewish philosophical thought, which devised a folk prayer based on the Shalom aleichem salutation [1].

The prayer is addressed to two angels, one for peace, one not, which inspect the house every Sabbath eve. If the preparations are approved, peace continues, if not, it ends. The scenario is background to the prayer’s invocation. The text has become closely associated with the tune composed at the start of the twentieth century in America by the exile Rabbi Israel Goldfarb. D’Or sings the opening unaccompanied. A bass line soon supports him, bowed on the viola da gamba or bass viol, which originated in Spain. The harmony is filled in by guitar in the improvised manner of Baroque basso continuo before an instrumental verse led by the psalterion, a hammer-struck stringed instrument evocative of the Eastern Mediterranean. The music becomes more formally Baroque with the harpsichord’s countermelody. Arrangements throughout the recording draw deliberately on diverse semitic and gentile traditions in aural representation of the diaspora over time.

Some exiles joined the Hispanic pioneers who crossed the Atlantic and founded New Spain. Differences were put aside in the common purpose of building a new community and the Missa mexicana, produced around 1677, contains folksongs, or villancicos, to make the mass more palatable to indigenous sceptics. One of these is Francisco Escalada’s Canten dos jilguerillos (‘Song of two goldfinches’) [2], which corresponds to the Kabbalists’ two opposing angels. The birds preside over a Christ-like baby, singing in duet which d’Or achieves by multi-tracking. Flamenco guitar and percussion drive the music forward, the compulsive three-time broken by hemiola rhythms.

The language of Iberian Jews, the Sephardim, is Ladino (as opposed to Yiddish in Northern Europe). D’Or traced the Ladino song A la una yo nací (‘At one o’clock I was born’) [3], to both Spain and Peru. The singer recounts life’s stages according to the clock, matured at two, courted at three, married at four. Typically, the verses are many, though d’Or selects only those on courtship and the young man’s twin devotions of mother and lover. He also reflects the dual provenance of the song in two interludes, one South American, the other Flamenco.

To exiled communities, social rituals have great significance. Courtship songs are especially popular. The traditional Ladino song Avre tu puerta cerrada (‘Open your closed door’) [4] is a Cantiga, or love song, from Turkey and Greece pleading with a lover for access. The tempo is slow for the three verses, the setting minimal for guitar, gamba and voice. The dreamy arrangement is pitched low so that d’Or uses both countertenor and baritone voices, moving imperceptibly from one to the other. Although the instrumentation is Baroque, the harmonisations are what d’Or describes as ‘folk-Baroque’, music dating from the seventeenth century but passed down the generations, remaining fluid, never quite attaching the permanent academic Baroque ‘stamp’, but gathering the inflections of different popular traditions on the way.

At least the exile, wandering through many cities, has the chance to compare the relative merits of different lovers. This is the claim in the Ladino cantiga Axerico de quinze años (‘Axerico, the fifteen-year-old’) [5]. The singer swears he has not encountered such dark-skinned beauty as that of the subject in any of seven northern cities between Paris and London (admittedly not a great spread). D’Or’s arrangement emphasises the girl’s oriental origins with an oboe like an Arabic shawm. The beat pulsates in six-eight, dancing in swirls. D’Or maintains that in the south, darkness was beauty, health and prosperity, where in the north, in London and Paris, paleness was exalted.

The French composer Étienne Moulinié came from the region of Languedoc on the Mediterranean coast of France. He was an itinerant musician, albeit in the company of an equally peripatetic court, that of the troublesome and often exiled brother of King Louis XIII. Through his princely employer’s wanderings, he was introduced to different cultures. He set songs not only in French but also Spanish, Italian, Gascon and Ladino. For a 1638 ballet, he wrote a song of the wandering Jew which begins with the raucous cry ‘Salamalec!’, a transliteration of the Shalom aleichem greeting.

In Rio de Seville (‘River of Seville’) [6], the singer declares his intention to keep his feet dry when crossing the river, although there is nothing he can do about his tears. The stamping rhythms are Spanish pastiche. The guitar was an eminently portable instrument, which travelled with the exiles and thrived, especially in the Americas. One of the earliest manuals, Gaspar Sanz’s Instrucción de musica sobre la guitarra, published in 1674, reached the far ends of the Hispanic empire. Sanz, himself travelled widely across the Mediterranean and spent some years as chapel organist to the Spanish viceroy in Naples. His book includes the Canarios [7], a wild triple-time dance originating in the Canary Islands. The instrumental arrangement here begins with the guitar and ends with the full band.

D’Or discovered the anonymous Ladino lyric La soledad de la nochada (‘The loneliness of the night’) [8] in Greek culture. The darkness of the text moved him when hostilities in Gaza during 2014 commanded the headlines. Since the verse was accompanied by no original melody, he composed a new one, stylistically in keeping with the Baroque flavours of the rest of the album. Solemn drones underlie the modal, freely rhythmic, outer sections accompanied by psalterion, while the three-time central portion is more traditionally diatonic.

The Ladino song Morikos (‘Moors’) [9] is a ballad or romanca from Spain and the Balkans. D’Or sings five verses telling the story of babies born on the same day to a king, one a daughter from his queen, the other a son from his Moorish slave-girl. The midwives switch the infants so that the boy grows up a prince and the girl a kitchen maid. ‘It symbolises extremes in society, but in the end, we’re all equal,’ says d’Or. He recalls an occasion when he included the song in a concert in Croatia and an elderly Bosnian woman came to him crying. She wasn’t Jewish, she said, but had grown up with the songs. ‘We’re all in a small village really,’ says d’Or. The rhythm is seven-eight, the singer’s slender, dancing melody accompanied initially only by subtle percussion.

Childbirth and children are common themes. In the Ladino song Hija mia (‘My daughter’) [10] a mother warns her daughter of the sea. The daughter refuses the advice, preferring death to love’s torment. D’Or’s arrangement begins with stabbing Vivaldi-esque chords and ends with a wave-like extract from Rameau’s keyboard piece La Timide representing the choice of the daughter to escape from painful love. Mother and daughter have the same melody with an abrupt key-change between the two. In the Turkish sharki tradition, from which the song comes, verses are added over centuries, though d’Or sings just the original two. As the girl unhesitatingly descends into the depths, so the song leads without a break into the Passacaglia in G minor [11] by the much-travelled Italian composer Biagio Marini, a colleague of Monteverdi at Venice from 1615 to 1620. It comes from his last work, a collection of instrumentals, Per Ogni Sorte de Stromento Op. 22, published in Venice in 1655 when he was 68. The bass line repeats in four-bar phrases, lamenting in sighs and bitter dissonances.

The anonymous fifteenth-century folk song El rey de Francia (‘The King of France’) [12] is a Sephardic romanca preserved in Ladino not Spanish. The daughter of the French king, wakes from a pleasant dream, which her mother interprets. She is to marry the Spanish king’s son resulting in political union and peace. The recorder blows the melody over bass drones, the psalterion glistening. The voice sings the first verse in free narrative rhythm before a Turkish hand-drum marks the dancing four-four beat of the middle verses. The declamatory style returns with the last verse, announcing the wedding. D’Or extemporises a vocal line, justifying his invention with the precedent of Baroque improvisation practices.

The exile carries homesickness as baggage. Few pieces of music evoke Spain more strongly than Asturias [13] from Chants d’Espagne by the Spanish pianist-composer Isaac Albéniz. As a child prodigy in the company of his civil servant father, Albéniz had toured much of Europe and the Americas by the age of 14, but later encouraged the romantic myth that he had run away from home and crossed the oceans as a stowaway. Although written for piano, the nostalgic Asturias is more famous as a guitar piece and performed here by mandolin and guitar.

The romanca Marizapalos [14] tells an amusingly coarse anecdote about the actress María ‘Marizapalos’ Calderón, the Spanish Nell Gwyn and King Philip IV’s mistress. She is the niece of a priest who teaches her Latin. Neglecting her studies, she picks flowers and makes love to a young man. Had the priest, who arrives late on the scene, come earlier, he would have heard some questionable Latin grammar, the singer jokes. The flowing, unstoppable, triple-time score is by Sanz, who, at the time of publishing his widely disseminated guitar manual, also taught the king’s illegitimate son by Calderón. D’Or, multi-tracking the chorus, varies the arrangement with dramatic pauses and a rhythmic change for the priest’s horse. A new melody intervenes, another from the colourful Missa mexicana, the recorder imitating Peruvian panpipes, as if representing the music’s dispersal to New Spain.

For the exile, song may also be a repository of information. The song Los guisados de la berenjena (‘The recipes of aubergine’) [15] is a copla from the island of Rhodes recording different ways of preparing what has always been a favourite vegetable in the Jewish community. One method is from the singer’s friend Elena, another from his cousin, a third from the sexton’s wife, the last and best by the neighbour’s daughter. D’Or sings the melody unaccompanied but for fast Flamenco clapping. Instruments arrive with a verse for the uncle, who is indifferent to the cooking methods just as long as he has plenty of wine. Frivolity attends the recording in the interjections of the band.

The folk songs of many exiles become lost unless recorded. The Chilean guitarist, singer and composer Violeta de la Parra not only scoured the villages of South America for songs, but also composed her own. She became a celebrity in post-war Europe, appearing at festivals from Finland to France. She composed and recorded Gracias a la vida (‘Thanks to life’) [16] in 1965. When she killed herself two years later, the song came to be seen as a suicide note. D’Or does not dwell on unhappiness but translates the music into a bossa nova by the third verse, the lyrics presenting a litany of the world’s beauties. The final verse resumes the singer’s declamatory voice in a reminder that her happiness and pain are also everybody’s and the music peters out to a quote from J.S. Bach in the guitar’s broken chords.

Drink soothes the exile’s woes. D’Or concludes his programme with the wine song Damigella tutta bella (‘Damsel most beautiful’) [17] by the Italian composer Vincenzo Calestani, who lived and worked in Pisa on Italy’s Mediterranean coast. The city’s Sephardic community fluctuated with periods of peace and persecution. Calestani did not travel, but his dancing, three-time, hemiola-rich, tambourine-punctuated song did, reminding its audiences of the good times which always, thank God, Jahweh and Allah, come again.

Richard Jones

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