Home / Music Reviews and Choices

Live: Ljuba Davis Leads Her Masterful Combo at Drom

by Carol Cooper

Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble
Friday, June 15

Better than: Getting bummed about the end of Al-Andalus.

For those of us who grew up hearing a lot of Yiddish, it can come as a nice surprise to discover that Hebrew modified Spanish as much as it transformed German. The resultant "Ladino" toungue is to Spanish Jews what Yiddish became to the Ashkenazim, but whereas witty Yiddish catchphrases are almost as familiar to mainstream America as a vaudeville pratfall, ladino humor and terminology remain less well-known. The Iberian flavor of Ljuba Davis's Ladino Ensemble owes much to spicy North African percussion and the melodic sweetness of the fado, and it reaches all the way back before Columbus to the golden age of Moorish rule for inspiration. String instruments -- in this case the cello, the bouzouki, the oud, and the acoustic guitar -- play together as in Arab orchestrals, with each instrument adding distinctive ornamentation to the main melody. Live, this tight five-piece combo of master instrumentalists sounds like a much bigger unit.

Davis first became popular on the Jewish folk revival circuit of the 1960s, but it wasn't until her more recent trip to Barcelona that the singer and her son, producer/cellist David Davis, felt compelled to celebrate their Sephardic heritage by finally recording some of the classic romantic and religious material from this tradition. The result, East and West, is an exuberant double-CD released on the band's own imprint this month. On record Davis's range can seem a bit fragile at times, but her breath control remains superb throughout. (As a girl, I must admit it gave me pause that Davis voluntarily removed her voice from the "instrumental" version of her album simply to satisfy an Orthodox prohibition against men listening to women sing! But respect for religious authority can sometimes produce unexpected results. Who knows -- perhaps this voluntary censorship will attract a few rappers to enhance these exotic backing tracks with a tasteful rhyme or two.)

In 1492, when engineers of the Christian reconquista decided to expel Spain's remaining Muslims and Jews all together in one fell swoop, already multi-lingual and cosmopolitan Sephardim began a series of diasporic migrations, which added even more Middle Eastern and Mediterranean elements to their food and music. The Davis ensemble is appropriately multi-national: Egyptian, Israeli, Greek and Moroccan players collaborate under Davis's shrewd direction, letting childhood memories of ancestral songs and legends guide her aesthetic.

Friday night -- or "Erev Shabbat," as she reminded us from the stage -- Davis explained that ladino lyrics describe emotions ranging from lust to love to devout spiritual longing . . . sometimes even in the same tune. Both "Et Dodi" (A Time of Lovers) and "Morenica" (Little Dark One) suggestively quote Solomon's Song of Songs, while the tender "Durme" gets used to put children to sleep even though it's actually about watching over the sleep of one's lover. Davis, an unusually warm and regal white-blonde beauty, led her quintet through tunes usually reserved for weddings or circumcisions or Passover seders with equal gusto. This grandmother and mother of seven knows how to vocalize a wide range of emotions, including the necessarily somber mood occasioned by petitioning God for mercy during the Yom Kippur prayer "Rachamana." Fast, playful Passover tunes went over big because of the number of kids in the crowd, especially the funky game-song "Had Gad Ya (One Little Goat)."

Drom's cavelike space was packed with Sephardic friends and families singing along, yet Davis still offered historical context for each song since the entire show was being videotaped. Her introduction to "Cuando El Rey Nimrod" gave a glimpse of the strategic adaptations which kept Sephardic culture alive through exile and suppression. Made popular in Spain shortly before the Jewish expulsion, "Cuando" used details from the Christian gospels to fabricate a similar mythos around the birth of Father Abraham. Even before forced conversion made some Sephardim hide their true faith under a mask of Catholicism, there were concilliatory attempts to go along with the dominant dogma.

Cellist Marty Confurious anchored this ensemble's low end with plucked and bowed gravitas. Nadav Lev sometimes added bass bottom notes on guitar, but for the most part strummed energetic harmonies against Rachid Halihal's nimble oud and Avram Pengas's trebley, greek-influenced bouzouki runs. Sephardic music is largely built around Turkish musical modes, but instrumentation can vary according to the host country of any musician. Each member of this combo can play in western and non-western styles, which makes their comfort within the Sephardic forms that much more impressive.

Due to time constraints "Adio Kerida" (Goodbye, Darling), my favorite track from East and West, was dropped from Friday's live show. Sung as a duet, it rocks like one of those signature numbers Harry Belafonte used to do with guest stars on his old television specials. You can almost picture Belafonte and Davis teaming up on this delicious anti-love song in which blame is slathered equally over a faithless lover and the mother that raised him, culminating in the oh-so-ethnic-New-York putdown: "You are dead to me." (Hey . . . come to think of it, why is no network today looking for the next young Belafonte? Note to self: Tell CBS to give Wyclef Jean a yearly television show that brings dynamic global pop acts and culture into America's living rooms again!)

Critical bias: I learned "Hava Nagila" at pink-diaper summer camps and by watching Harry Belafonte perform it.

Overheard: "I used to sing 'Durme' to my wife and daughter almost 40 years ago."

Random notebook dump: The first communities of Jews in North America were Sephardic. Manhattan's Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (now on West 70th Street) was founded in 1654 to become the first continuously existing Jewish congregation established in the US.

Set list:

  1. [Instrumental Intro]: Los Bilbilicos (Nightingales)
  2. Et dodim
  3. Scalerica
  4. Morenica
  5. Cuando
  6. Sholem Aleichem
  7. [Instrumental Break]: El Wadi
  8. Rachamana
  9. Durme
  10. Adir hu
  11. Had Gad Ya (One Little Goat)

Published in: Village Voice, June 18, 2012