Flory Jagoda is a culture keeper. The Bosnian-born singer learned a repertoire of ancient Sephardic songs from her nona — her grandmother — which she has preserved and shared with generations. At 90, she continues to sing, compose and teach these songs, many sung in Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, the language of the Sephardim — the Jews who trace their roots back to Inquisition-era Spain more than 500 years ago.
On Saturday at the historic Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, Flory Jagoda: The Celebration Concert recognized the Arlington singer as a “keeper of the flame” in preserving and perpetuating this often little-known and little-studied Jewish musical tradition. The sold-out evening included ancient songs from generations gone by and works Jagoda has composed to transmit her family’s musical heritage. Among the musicians who joined her were her long-time accompanist Howard Bass; singer and long-time student Susan Gaeta; and Jagoda’s granddaughter, singer Ariel Lowell.
Her first recording in 1989, Kantikas Di Mi Nona (Songs of My Grandmother), and much of her subsequent work, including three additional releases, drew on the music of her extended Altaras family and the rhythms and Ladino language she learned at her grandmother’s knee. “When we’re talking about my music, I always take it back to nona,” Jagoda said in the week leading up to the celebratory concert. “The whole family, they lived in a little village about two hours from Sarajevo, where I was born. Everything I have in my mind, it comes from music [I heard in] that village called Vlasenica,” which was the village where her grandmother and other extended family lived and where Jagoda grew up.
“The whole family were musicians,” she said. “I’m not talking professional musicians, but natural musicians. They were all musicians playing by ear. No instruments of any kind. No lessons. Singing was part of the day.”
Jagoda recalls that her nona was a midwife and when she got summoned to deliver her baby, in addition to the regular equipment she required for a birth, her grandmother would also bring along her tambourine and sing as the mother was laboring.
Sephardic music, Jagoda explained, is actually music from all the countries where the Sephardim from Spain and Portugal settled — that means Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Italy, among other nations. “The moment they would come to a country,” she said, “the first thing they did — not by study, but by practice — was use the rhythms of the country. The rhythms … of dancing, of singing to start to write songs.” These songs, though musically variant, mostly maintained the lingua franca of the Sephardim: Ladino.
“The language was the part of the household, and it was mostly [passed on] by the women. That is well-known,” she said. That women carried not only the customs of cooking and foodways but of the tradition through song, dance and language, which has preserved a culture. As a Bosnian, Jagoda’s musical style reflects that culture, but some of her songs, she said, go back further, centuries back to Spain. “These are very old and for some people unsingable. They are usually learned from one country to another, from community to community, because this is what the women do to carry on [the tradition] to the children.”
During World War II, which Jagoda just refers to as “the war,” she was interned on the island of Korcula off the Dalmatian of Croatia. She lost 42 members of her Altaras family. Afterward, she met and married an American soldier, Harry Jagoda, and settled in the U.S. Over the years, the singer/songwriter has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship and was a master artist for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
“It is an honor to have this concert at the Library of Congress,” Jagoda said. “I have never received such a valuable and such a wonderful gift. Not only that, this is a Jewish event of Jewish music that is not well-known” at a landmark American building. She added, “Don’t start me talking about America, I just love this country.”
“The beauty of what I have to say is that this is five centuries after the Inquisition,” said the mother of four, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two. “This music must be connected with a lot of deep love that people have had the patience and love to go on and make it continue. And it is mostly the women that carried this tradition to the reality of today. This evening [was] for the heroines, that we can have an evening like this after five centuries and after all the wars, and horrible things that happened, shows that we somehow managed to survive and continue on.”
A forthcoming film about Jagoda and her music is in production by JEMGLO, a documentary film production company. For information, visit http://jemglo.org.