For almost three thousand years, diverse communities of Jews throughout the world have added the flavor of their lives to ancient scripture to create a layered collection of Jewish music. This year, two wonderful Jewish women have released albums to ensure the tradition continues.
While Ljuba Davis has committed herself to bringing the music of Spanish Jews from the secret past into the present, Alison Westermann has created new songs using old words, securing the present for the benefit of the future. I recently spoke with both women about their journeys into Jewish recording, and both these women and their albums deserve your attention.
Ljuba Davis is a sixty-something mother of seven, a trained nurse and a cantor, who has lived throughout the United States, including stints in Chicago in the 1960s and Berkeley, California, in the 1970s before settling on Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago. Her grandmother taught her the traditions and music of the Spanish Jews and admonished her to never forget her Sephardic heritage. Jews were officially expelled from Spain in 1492, and all who remained on Spanish soil were forced to convert to Christianity or were tortured and executed by the Inquisition. Since that time, there has been a tradition of “secret Jews” throughout the Spanish world. Called “marranos” (“pigs”) by their Christian neighbors, these Jews were outwardly devoted to the Church, but maintained their traditions in secret. This is what Davis’s grandmother gave her, a memory of secrets in Spain.
Davis recently took a trip to Barcelona. The trip inspired her music, she says. “Perhaps it’s part of some genetic memory, way, way back in the prism of my mind.” Her son encouraged her to record a collection of those songs, those melodies Davis remembers from her own childhood but that are not nearly as well-known as the Eastern European melodies of most American Jews. Davis said “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.” To bring the authentic feel that Davis thought the music deserved, she surrounded herself with Mediterranean musicians. Jews and Gentiles from Israel, Morocco, Egypt, and New York, the Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble is a diverse collection brought together by a love of music, according to Davis. The result is unique, lyrics in either Spanish or Hebrew sung to resounding melodies with obvious Middle Eastern flair. Davis sings on all eight tracks of the first disc, and the second disc is the same eight songs as instrumentals.
Davis deserves a lot of credit for bringing Ladino into the twenty-first century. Ladino culture is significantly less known and less recognized than the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jews. That being said, this album deserves to be heard by those who enjoy heavy Middle Eastern percussion. Davis admits the album is not exactly traditional, but she states “…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.” Her passion for this music shows.
Far away from Martha’s Vineyard, Alison Westermann is a thirty-something mother of one and Jewish educator living in El Paso, Texas. Westermann toyed with the idea of creating music through her childhood and early adult life, and began performing locally after she moved to El Paso. After the recent loss of her younger sister, Lauren, to suicide, she stopped messing around and dedicated herself to recording. About Lauren’s last days, she says “…my parents and I struggled to sing to Lauren… I sang her my song – the one that seemed to wake everyone up at the conference – praying that it would do the same for Lauren.” “Shapirit” (named for Lauren’s dragonfly tattoo) is an interesting collection, containing new melodies for ageless prayers and a few completely original pieces.
It brings to mind the late great Debbie Friedman, who was able to bring my generation in touch with the tradition of Jewish women of song by giving it just enough sugar to compete with contemporary pop. Westermann shows her skills as an educator here, making an album parents will love to share with their children throughout their Jewish education, just as our parents gave us Debbie Friedman. She says that the music “is helping me heal in so many ways…it starts when I write it down, and it continues as I sing it to someone…” She shows tremendous promise on this, her first album.
Both Davis and Westermann should be thanked for their unique contributions to the world of Jewish music. If you are looking to inject a little life into your service, and you aren’t afraid to try something new, listen to “East and West”. For people who like their Jewish music both familiar and new at the same time, then “Shapirit” is the album for you.