Singer Vanessa Paloma loves to perform Ladino songs. "The stories are so amazing," said Paloma, 33. "They're like little tidbits of a society that has been spread around the whole world."
Prior to the 15th century, the Spanish word Ladino translated as "the other," as in cultural outsiders. Since then, however, it has become shorthand for the Judeo-Spanish people.
The Ladino songs that her musical group, Flor de Serena (Siren's Flower), will perform in "A Tapestry of Songs and Stories" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Sept. 19 are part entertainment and part a historical-cultural document of a Jewish community that was dispersed after the Spanish expulsion of 1492. While the tunes themselves tend to interpolate melodies with origins in Catholic Spain, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Holland and other countries where Sephardim migrated, the lyrics often dwell on female bonding between women -- between mother and daughter, between the young woman and las tias (the aunts). Some songs even contain cooking recipes.
"Ladino songs were really a woman's repertoire, a Jewish woman's tradition," said Paloma, whose Sephardic mother is Columbian and whose American father is from the Midwest.
One song from Peru advises men to only marry dark-skinned, dark-eyed beauties and to avoid the blond devil. One of the songs that Paloma performs, "Una Matica de Ruda," is a love song featuring a rue plant.
"My grandmother would say it's very good luck to have a rue plant, but you can't buy it for yourself, someone must give it to you," Paloma recalled.
Flor de Serena formed in 2000 following Paloma's time in Israel, where she met Sephardic community leader Itzhrak Navon and Kohava Levy, widow of a leading ethnologist on Ladino music. When she returned to Los Angeles, Paloma turned to her friend, guitarist Jordan Charnofsky, for whom, it turned out, Ladino is the nexus of all of his musical interests and training.
"It was very natural," Charnofsky said, "because I specialize in classical and Spanish guitar and Jewish music."
The pair recruited Vic Koler on bass and David Martinelli on percussion, and Flor de Serena was born. Flute player Martin Glicklich, cellist David Mergen and Latin percussionist Kim Diaz will fill out the group's sound on Sept. 19.
"Ladino can serve as a bridge to help the Jewish community outreach to the Hispanic community," said John Rauch, director of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, where Paloma has worked for four years. Non-Jewish Mexican singers, such as Jaramar, perform Ladino music, and Paloma would like to see Los Angeles' Latino population embrace Ladino, too.
Charnofsky enjoys the idea of excavating the dormant melodies and bringing them to a wider audience, which will be the point of the CD that Flor de Serena is currently recording.
"We're going to focus on lesser melodies that people haven't heard before," Charnofsky said. "It's part of preserving the culture and moving it forward, making it known to people. It's not only entertainment, but preserving the Jewish culture in different forms."