A dozen members of Kol Sephardic Choir stood in a semicircle, clutching songbooks as they rehearsed the lyrics of “Quando el Rey Nimrod.” Halfway through the Ladino folk song, music director Avi Avliav held his hands up and told the group to stop.
“The idea is to lose yourselves and enjoy this,” Avliav said. “Let’s see if we can put our books down and find a connection to the music.”
A week later, at the choir’s Chanukah concert on Dec. 16 in West Hollywood, it was clear that members had taken his advice to heart. Bedecked in sequined vests and ruffled skirts, Kol Sephardic Choir performed a moving selection of Ladino-language ballads and Chanukah songs at Plummer Park’s Fiesta Hall, accompanied by the clacking heels of flamenco dancers twirling brightly colored fans.
The concert capped the 20th anniversary of Kol Sephardic Choir, which began in Los Angeles as an informal sing-along group and blossomed into the only professional choir in the United States — and one of few worldwide — whose repertoire consists primarily of Ladino music, founder and director Raphael Ortasse said.
Ladino, a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish that evolved among Jews in medieval Spain, has been kept alive by Sephardic communities around the world since the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews in 1492. Woven into the romanceros (love songs) and cantigas and coplas (Iberian songs) the choir performs is the DNA of a long-dwindling culture that Ortasse hopes to preserve.
“These are the songs that were sung by my mother, my father,” said Ortasse, a retired aeronautical engineer and Hebrew school educator who traces his lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain. “Sephardic music and culture are almost unknown among the Jewish community. We’re just a small group, but we’ve been able to bring them to light.”
The themes of the music are timeless: ballads from lovelorn poets, drinking songs, prayers for a son, well-wishes for a bride. “They reflect the lives of the people — and their lives then, in some ways, were no different than our lives today,” Ortasse said.
Ortasse declined to give his age, but with his white beard and glasses, he presides over the choir with a grandfatherly air.
Born in a small Sephardic community in Khartoum, Sudan, Ortasse moved to British Palestine with his parents when he was 6. He joined his uncles in New York to attend the Polytechnic Institute of New York University) around the time Israeli statehood was declared. After moving to Los Angeles, he worked on the space program for 22 years.
Between his family and his career, Ortasse didn’t set aside much time for exploring his heritage. But he always remembered walking home from school as a child and hearing his mother’s voice waft out the kitchen window, singing “La Serena.” The beauty of that melody stuck with him for decades.
By the early 1990s, Ortasse wanted to revive interest in L.A.’s rich, but waning, Sephardic tradition. He had an idea: a choir. He partnered with the rabbi at what was then the Sephardic Hebrew Center to put out a call for members. Eventually, sign-ups started to trickle in.
Then there was the question of what music they would sing. Ortasse pored over songbooks in libraries, dug through dusty files, and asked Sephardic cantors and acquaintances in Israel and Europe to recall melodies passed down from previous generations.
“It was not an easy task,” Ortasse recalled. “I scratched around. I collected whatever I could lay my hands on. When you decide to do something like this, you don’t leave a stone unturned.”
Politics pushed him away from the fledgling choir when the center merged with another synagogue, but Ortasse regrouped and founded Kol Sephardic Choir as an independent entity in 1992. The group began with a dozen members who met at the Westside Jewish Community Center to sing Ladino songs. Since then, the choir has hired a music director and professional flamenco dancers, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion twice and recorded a CD.
Today, the choir is about one-third Sephardi. The rest are mostly Ashkenazi; one is Catholic. Members range in age from their 30s to 80s.
Venus Kapuya, one of the original members, joined to rekindle a connection to her own Sephardic roots. She remembered many of the songs from her childhood in Turkey.
“I used to hear them from my mom,” Kapuya said. “Sometimes she would tell me stories about how my grandmother sang them while she was doing her sewing; she would keep rhythm with the sewing machine.”
Elizabeth Martínez didn’t know she had a Jewish background until she joined the choir four years ago. Raised Catholic in a Mexican-American family, Martínez grew up singing in Spanish and English. She found her way to Kol Sephardic Choir through a friend, the ensemble’s pianist. When she showed up to practice, the first strains of music stirred something inside her.
“I had this lightning-bolt moment,” Martínez recalled. “There were a couple of songs that I knew, and I wasn’t sure why.”
She examined her family’s background with her father and found uncanny similarities: knowledge of Ladino folk songs, for one, and family names that were Sephardic in origin. Like many descendents of Sephardic Jews who survived by hiding their faith, she had never been told.
“I grew up knowing that some people in Mexico have menorahs, and they don’t know what they’re for,” she said. “Singing with this choir has filled in some gaps. It has been a really spiritual and enlightening experience.”
Each piece in the choir’s repertoire illuminates some aspect of life in the Sephardic communities of yore and also carries the stories of those who took the songs with them after the expulsion from Spain. “Arvoles Yoran Por Luvias,” for example, a cry of longing by a lover leaving on a journey, was sung by Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust as they boarded trains bound for concentration camps, Ortasse said. When the choir performs the song, lyrics like, “What will become of me?” follow the recorded screech of a train on its tracks.
Music makes the strongest case for the preservation of Sephardic culture, Ortasse believes.
“Music transcends,” he said. “Music, art — these are the things that everybody can relate to. You don’t have to be Italian to enjoy an Italian opera.”
Margarita Kligerman had “no idea what Ladino was, what Sephardic was,” when she joined the choir 12 years ago, she said. But the native of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, recognized what she calls “the Jewish soul.”
“I fell in love with the music. I’m Ashkenazi, but music is music; it doesn’t matter what I am,” Kligerman said. “When I stand on the stage and sing, I see people’s eyes looking at us, hungry for something spiritual in the music. People who come to one concert follow us to the next concert. We’re all so different; we come from different countries, speak different languages. But this is what we have in common — love for this music.”
Ortasse hopes to send the choir on the road someday, traveling with musicians, artists and performers to showcase the flavors of Sephardic Judaism. “My goal is to not let it die,” he said. “It’s not just a song or a language — it’s a way of life.”
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