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Sample Track 1:
"Durme V" from East and West
Sample Track 2:
"Adir Hu V" from East and West
Layer 2
Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble, East and West A Timeless Joy:
Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble Brings Fresh, Acoustic Life to Sephardic Songs on East and West


Singer Ljuba Davis walked into a courtyard in the old section of Barcelona—and knew she had been there before.

“I found myself in front of a church. It was like I’d been there before, and it was like the gift store shouldn’t have been there. I’d never been there in my life,” Davis recalls. “It was terrifying. I felt cold and clammy, and couldn’t put finger on what was going on.”

Davis has turned that eerie, intense connection to her Ladino roots into pure poetry, rendering the musical traditions of her ancestors with fresh verve. Supported by the Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble, some of New York’s top Greek, Arab, and Jewish musicians (led by bouzuki master Avram Pengas), Davis’s voice resounds on East and West (release: June 12, 2012; www.LDLEnsemble.com/), moving through rollicking tunes (“Et Dodim,” “Adir Hu”) and gentle ballads and lullabies (“Durme”).

The album is the first recording by this one-time mainstay of the early West Coast Jewish music revival, now a passionate musical elder savoring the expressive force of a lifetime of song, celebration, and wisdom. Its acoustic arrangements draw on the full gamut of timbres and rhythms from around the Eastern Mediterranean, a richness coming to New York’s Drom on June 15.

“When I sing some of these songs. I don’t do it in the way that some people envision Ladino music. Perhaps it’s part of some genetic memory, way, way back in the prism of my mind,” Davis smiles. “But for the music to be real, I need to sing it the way I feel it now, with more of a contemporary rhythm and with great joy. I simply love this music.”

{full story below}

“Never forget that your family are Sephardim. That you came from Spain.”

The words of Ljuba Davis’s feisty paternal grandmother always stuck with her, as did her father’s penchant to spit at any mention of the Jewish people's expulsion from Spain. The expulsion in the 15th century sent the Sephardim moving ever further east, to the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

A gifted singer and fluent Spanish speaker, Davis was fascinated by the morsels of Sephardic melodies—secular and liturgical—she encountered as a child, and later on recordings and in songbooks. She went to nursing school (where she sang in the hospital’s resonant stairwells), raised seven children, and gradually gathered dozens of prized Ladino traditional songs into her repertoire.

A veteran performer, Davis contributed to the fascinating intersection of Jewish music revival and the folk movement, performing on major stages and in small clubs from Chicago to her Bay Area home. Berkeley was a hotspot of Jewish music creativity in the 1960s, and Davis was a sought-after singer and cultural trailblazer in the community.

But it wasn’t until she went to Barcelona—and until her son David Davis (who produced the album and plays the radiant cello on “Durme”) began to encourage her to record—that Davis contemplated making an album of her uniquely heartfelt renditions and the stunning melodies of the Ladino tradition.

“I began to think about a Hebrew proverb that translates, ‘if not now, when?’” Davis reflects. “I realized I needed to get off my ass. To focus on what I love, bring the music to life in a way that is relevant. I don’t want to live in the past, but make it present and real.”

To keep it real, David recruited Pengas, a self-taught virtuoso, to act as musical director, leading a band that encompassed everything from Spanish guitar to spitfire Mediterranean percussion to upright bass. The group’s sound shifts effortlessly from pensive, almost Fado-tinged ballads like “Morenica,” to a moving duet that played a major role in the Sarajevo resistance during the Balkan War, “Adio Kerida.”

Capturing the full spectrum of Ladino song, Davis and company channel the drama and sprightly swing of “Et Dodim,” a Mizrahi Sephardic setting of a sensual passage from the Song of Songs. They then render the Yom Kippur prayer “Rachamana” with a lush, contemplative dignity and a flourish of oud (Arab lute), bouzuki, and guitar.

Despite the musicians’ diverse backgrounds, working together was a breeze. “The mutual respect and accommodation we felt were wonderful,” Davis recalls. “Avram comes from the Greek Romaniot tradition, and then his family moved to Israel. He goes back and forth all the time. Nadav, our guitarist, is a kibutznik from Israel. Rachid the oud player, is from Morocco; Ossama, our percussionist, is from Egypt; and neither of them is Jewish. Marty, our bass player, is from Brooklyn. What brought us together was the music.”

The dedication to and respect for the music itself echoes in the album’s unique structure: one set of tracks with Davis’s vocals, and one with only the instrumental and backing (male) tracks, allowing listeners to sing along and learn the melodies—and to honor the Orthodox prohibition on men listening to female vocals. Davis wants these songs sung, no matter how and by whom.

“People can sing along, and pass along the melodies,” Davis explains. “I wanted Ladino songs to be real and present in people’s consciousness, in addition to more commonly sung Eastern European music or songs like ‘Hava Nagila.’ They should be part of everyday life in the Jewish community and beyond. It’s timeless music.”

<< release: 06/12/12 >>