These days, I’m spending a lot of time in Muslim Spain–a golden age of cross-cultural pollination by any standard. At a time when most of Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, Muslim Spain was a center of wealth, learning–and tolerance. If you wanted libraries, hot baths, or good health care, Spain was the place to be.
I recently discovered the perfect soundtrack for thinking about Muslim Spain: the ladino music of Yasmin Levy.
Ladino is the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish. (Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word for Spain.) Spoken by the Jews of Muslim Spain, ladino began as a combination of Hebrew and Spanish. When their most Catholic majesties Isabella and Ferdinand expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, most of them sought protection in the Muslim states of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Over time, their language took on elements of Arabic, Greek, Turkish, French, and the Slavic languages of the Balkans.
Ladino music, like the language itself, carries the history of the Sephardic community in its sound. It has elements in common with Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, Jewish klezmer music, and Turkish folk songs.
Today the ladino speaking community is small. Perhaps 20,000 speakers. Like other embattled language groups–the Gaelic speakers of Ireland, the French-speaking Cajuns of southwest Louisiana–Sephardic activists are working to keep their language alive.
Take a moment to listen as Yasmin Levy sings Jaco, from her latest album, Sentir (To Feel)
Remember. You heard it here first.