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parool Interview

Nani sings in the dying Jewish language Ladino that she secretly learned from her grandmother

Jazz songwriter and singer Nani Noam Vazana learned Ladino, a dead language of the Sephardic Jews, secretly from her grandmother. Now she breathes new life into the extinct language and reveals the true meaning of traditional Sephardic fairytales. On Sunday she will present her new album ‘Ke Haber’ in the Bimhuis.

Nani (Noam Vazana) was born in Israel, her parents were born in Morocco and her ancestors are Sephardic Jews – which makes her Jewish-Moroccan. In 2006 she came to Amsterdam to study in the conservatory and quickly became an inseparable part of the city’s landscape. “When I was eight, after seeing a windmill, I said to my mother: ‘One day I will live in a country where energy comes from mills and people ride bicycles to work’ I didn’t know anything about the Netherlands at this point, but words have a strong affiliation with creating our reality.”

As a good artist should, Vazana reflects the times we are in, singing about relevant and socially pertinent topics, but her new album comprises texts in a ‘dead’ language. Ladino is the language of the Sephardic Jews who, until their exile in the fifteenth century, lived in the Iberian Peninsula. They fled to the Ottoman Empire and the countries around it. Today they are everywhere. “People called me ‘The Wandering Jew’ in the past, it may be a cliché, but I do feel at home the most when I’m on the road.”

As a kid, Vazana didn’t really connect to Ladino music ‘It seemed very dramatic and full of embellishments. As if the grandeur of the singer was more important than the melody itself’. Until she visited Fez, the birthplace of her grandmother, during a Moroccan tour. “Fez is so authentic and inspiring, it brought back memories – the colours and the smells of the marketplace and people singing while cooking, just like my grandmother did. And there, on the street I heard people singing a melody that my grandmother sang to me when I was 4 years old.”

A language of magic and mystery

Nani’s grandmother taught her Ladino in hiding when she was little. “My father didn’t allow it, as a refugee he wanted to leave everything behind. Ladino was mysterious to me, a language of magic and mystery. My grandmother told me fairy tales none of the other kids knew. When I asked my mom where they came from, she said that my grandmother made them up herself. Twenty years later I found out that they are traditional Sephardic fairy tales.”

On her first album in Ladino, Andalusian Brew, Nani experimented with modern rendition of traditional music. The unknown original meanings behind the traditional texts intrigued her. “A lot of old texts are about dying of love. At the time it wasn’t acceptable to write explicitly about sex, so instead of writing ‘I want to come’ they wrote ‘I want to die’. At the same time, they were open about other topics. For instance, Shmuel Hanagid, a famous Jewish saint wrote homoerotic poetry. Another interesting song is Morenika – a beautiful ballad that is often played at weddings, but if you listen to the lyrics, they tell the story of a bride who wants to skip the wedding, she wants to run away with her true love.”

She takes you on a journey

Nani writes about current topics. For example, No Kero Madre is a mother-daughter dialogue that goes against the arranged marriage tradition and Sin Dingun Hijo Varon is about a person undergoing a gender transformation. “Sephardic Jews define themselves as orthodox, but they also believe in magic. Ancient texts deal openly with topics that are still considered taboo even nowadays. We think we invented the wheel but we are not that advanced, and I want to show that history repeats and that we’re still dealing with the same questions. Hopefully this will make the language relevant today, so that young people find their own connection with it.”

On Sunday Nani presents her new album Ke haber, (What’s new) in the Bimhuis Amsterdam. She takes the listener on the journey into Ladino language and culture. From Portugal to Spain, through Morocco, Israel and the Netherlands. During her concerts, she always teaches the audience two songs. “If you can take someone into a new experience and you don’t, they’re missing out on something beautiful.”

Does the Ladino language have a future? “I can’t stop Ladino from dying out. But if I can create a short period of inspiration, why not? Our currency is time – we should make it count”

Nani Noam Vazana, 08/1, 8.30 pm at the Bimhuis, €16 – €19.

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