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Virginia Folksingers Preserve The Art Of Sephardic Ballads

Susan Gaeta (seated) with Gina Sobel. Photo by Pat Jarret/The Virginia Folklife Program
Master Sephardic ballad singer Susan Gaeta (seated) with apprentice Gina Sobel. Photo by Pat Jarrett, courtesy of the Virginia Folklife Program

Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors lived in Spain and Portugal until the late fifteenth century. Their rich language and cultural traditions blend Spanish and Hebrew influences. In large part, because of the Holocaust, some of these traditions have disappeared. A couple of Virginia folksingers are working to keep alive the traditional art of Sephardic Ballad singing. WCVE’s Peter Solomon has more for Virginia Currents

Learn More: In 2002, Flory Jagoda was made a National Heritage Fellow. Read an interview with the artist and sample some of her music at the NEA’s website. Flory Jagoda is also the subject of a one-hour documentary called “Flory’s Flame.” Learn more about Susan Gaeta, including her work with Trio Sefardi and a list of recordings and upcoming performances here. Gina Sobel’s artist page can be found here. More information on the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program can be found here.


Sephardic folk music has a rhythmic lilt. The melodies and vocal flourishes give it a Mediterranean quality and it’s sung in a language that sounds like Spanish, but it’s not.

(Music: Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel,“Il Bastidor”)

Susan Gaeta sings a Sephardic song called “Il Bastidor,” in which a new bride laments that she has no time to embroider a vest for her husband. The words are  Ladino. Gaeta says it’s a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Sephardic Jews.

Susan Gaeta: The Sephardic Jews are descendants of the exiles of Spain when the Jews are expelled in 1492 and they settled throughout the Ottoman Empire and other places in the world. And their language was a Spanish language because they’d been in Spain for centuries.

Gaeta learned the Sephardic ballads from Flory Jagoda, who grew up in Bosnia before World War II. Ladino was Jagoda’s native language.

(Music: Flory Jagoda,“Porke Yoras Emoza Mujer”)

Her music is a mix of traditional songs and original pieces that spring from her  memories of growing up in a small village 90 kilometers from Sarajevo called Vlasenica. While she survived the war and settled in America, her native Jewish community was destroyed.

Gaeta: The entire Jewish community of her village, her family, were taken out to the countryside and thrown in a mass grave. So they were completely lost. She has written music to keep their memories alive, and to celebrate them.

Forty years after the war, Jagoda visited the site where her family was buried. She recounted the story in an interview for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Flory Jagoda: I went home and I wrote songs. I just threw myself into music. And every song that I have written about holidays - it’s all about them. So they’re with me.

(Music: Flory Jagoda, “Yo Kun La Mi Kunsuegra”)

Memories of Jagoda’s native village come to life in songs like “Yo Kun La Mi Kunsuegra,” which tells the story of a bride who finds contentment with her new family. She sang songs like this one at weddings in her native village.

In 2002, Susan Gaeta enrolled in what’s now the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program and she formally became Flory Jagoda’s apprentice. She’s now been designated as a Master of Sephardic Ballad Singing, and in 2017 she took on Charlottesville folk singer Gina Sobel as her apprentice.

(Music: Gina Sobel, “Una Matika”)

Sobel says her introduction to Flory Jagoda and the Sephardic Ballad tradition came in a college Ethnomusicology course.

I opened up my Worlds of Music textbook and there was a photo of this woman Flory Jagoda and that was the first time I was aware of Sephardic music. I kept an interest in it and I got to see  Flory and Susan play together at a concert a couple of years later. Then we started talking and singing together and it was really great. And then Susan took me to Flory’s apartment and we got to sing together and it was wonderful.

To meet the demands of her apprenticeship, Sobel had to learn to sing in a new language. She had to harmonize well and bring something new – something of her own to the performances. That’s how she came to add the flute.

(Music: Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel, “La Kapara”)

According to Susan Gaeta, adaptation and change are essential if Traditional Sephardic Folk Ballads are to survive.

Gaeta: The Sephardim when they left Spain over all of those years and where they settled they kept their language and some of their traditional aspects of the music but they also brought to their music what was in the culture they were living in so it adapted and changed everywhere they went.

Flory Jagoda is now 94 years old. She no longer performs in public. According to Unesco, more than 100,000 people speak Ladino but it’s been designated as an Endangered Language. Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel continue to perform Sephardic music in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They have plans to record together this Fall and are planning a tour of Jewish Communities in Cuba in the Spring of 2019.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Peter Solomon, WCVE News.