Baladino plays in praise of cultural melting pots

An exotic act at this year's Chutzpah fest builds bridges using a rich language that's in danger of dying out

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      Sometimes the best way to aim big is to start small and impassioned, that line of thinking not lost on Yael Badash. As the lead singer of culture-blending folktronica fusionists Baladino, the 37-year-old is helping pump new blood into a dying language and its musical traditions. Ladino—a Judeo-Spanish dialect that can be traced back to the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492—is now spoken by only 200,000 people on the planet.

      As much as she loves the language and its songs, Badash really gets excited about Ladino when she talks about how it might help make the world a better place. The singer rightly suggests the world has problems, one of the biggest being that large swaths of people seem incapable of getting along. That’s driven home in the Middle East, where there’s a long history of conflict between Israel and the countries that surround it.

      What Badash admires about Ladino is the way it evolved over the years to incorporate Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and Balkan languages. The message of that linguistic melting pot is simple: no culture need be homogeneous. Israel and its neighbours, suggests Badash, could learn something from that.

      “My biggest dream is to see the Middle East as a place with no borders,” she says, speaking in charmingly accented English by phone from Tel Aviv. “A place where you can go from one country to another, meet people and learn from them as they learn from you. A place where you can communicate.”

      Badash will soon be headed overseas for a tour that will bring her band to Vancouver for this winter’s Chutzpah Festival. If she has a goal with Baladino both at home and abroad, it’s to do some serious bridge-building between cultures. And rather than point a finger at those outside Israel’s borders, the Petah Tikva–raised artist suggests her homeland needs to do a better job of embracing various voices, something that wasn’t a problem for those who grew up speaking Ladino.

      “My roots are from Libya and Poland and Jerusalem,” Badash says. “And if you take it a little back from Jerusalem, you go to Morocco and Greece. But how can you find music in Israel that can represent all that? In Israel, they erased all history and said, ‘We are now forming a country, and we’re going to stop speaking all the old languages—we’re only going to speak Hebrew.’ We’ve lost a lot of things along the way.”

      Ladino was almost one of them.

      Badash—whose maternal grandmother’s roots go back seven generations in Jerusalem—remembers Ladino songs being sung around the house when she was little.

      “I had the Ladino at home from my grandmother, so I knew those melodies, but I never thought I would do anything professionally in the music field,” she says. “For sure, I didn’t ever think of going in a world-music direction with Ladino or traditional music.”

      Like many in Israel, the sultry-voiced mezzo-soprano would gravitate to more modern forms of music as she grew older. Jokingly, she notes that her bandmates—who are based in Berlin and Tel Aviv—didn’t pick up guitars because they were fascinated with the past, but instead because they wanted to impress girls.

      Eventually, the members of Baladino would get very serious about music. The range of instruments they play on the group’s moving and atmospheric debut, Dos Amantes, is staggering. In addition to Badash, those musicians include Jonathan “Yonnie” Dror (clarinet, alto flute, soprano sax, ney, duduk, shofar, fujara, didgeridoo), Thomas Moked (violin, guitar, oud, bouzouki, mandolin), Daniel Sapir (upright bass), and Yshai Afterman (cajón, darbuka, riq, bendir, Persian daf, tar, dhol, and cymbals).

      Before meeting her future bandmates, Badash caught the attention of notable Yugoslavian composer Goran Bregović, who helped her rediscover the music of her childhood. The singer, whose artistic endeavours also include acting, performed with Bregović at large-scale concerts across Europe, the reaction changing her life.

      “I started to explore my roots and think really hard about what Jewish music was. And I must say that I didn’t find Ladino and Jewish-music songs—they found me. I was invited to participate in a contest of original Ladino song because they wanted to preserve the culture.”

      She’d win that contest, known as Festiladino, not once but twice.

      “But even then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with Ladino,” Badash admits. “In Israel, Ladino is still considered to be very old-fashioned. What they did with Ladino music was make it very cheesy. But after I won the contest two times, I said, ‘Okay, someone is trying to tell me something.’ And the magic was at that time I was already starting to work with Thomas Moked. He’s a music producer and member of Baladino. And my fiancé.”

      Since then, Baladino has made it its mission to keep Ladino alive and move it forward, both playing in Israel and abroad in support of Dos Amantes. “Exotic” is, predictably, a good starting point for describing the music the quintet makes using its arsenal of instruments. Witness the snake-charming strings in the smoky “Ir Me Kero” and the sunset-in-Istanbul majesty of “La Kumida ‘La Manyana’ ”.

      Baladino explores Ladino’s diasporic legacy with the mournful “Duduk Improvisation” and makes the yawning darkness beautiful on the bass-heavy ballad “Tzur Mishelo”. But at the same time, the group isn’t interested in being a living museum piece. That Radiohead and Led Zeppelin rank high as influences is evident from the epic dazed-and-confused groove of “Si Veriash a la Rana”. The band’s interest in chillout-tent throwback electronica, meanwhile, surfaces in the down-tempo “A, Sinyora Novia”.

      “Baladino was created because we wanted to find interesting, new sounds for Ladino,” Badash says. “We were born in and raised in Israel, but we were also exposed to a lot of western music. We have a lot of influences from artists that have nothing to do with world music by definition. Our place as modern musicians is to bring our world to old Ladino songs and give them new life—modern life. After all, we’re not coming from the village, having played these songs since we were little kids.”

      While Baladino is bringing something fresh to Ladino, it’s not, Badash argues, in a way that’s disrespectful to purists. While she doesn’t speak Ladino yet, she has lyrics translated so that she knows what she’s singing about. That’s part, the singer adds, of respecting the traditions of those who’ve come before her.

      “The way that we are dealing with the music is not too extreme for them [purists],” Badash offers. “We keep the text and the melody most of the time. We take it a little differently with the rhythm and the sounds. If there are people that’s hard for, I’d say we’re here to give Ladino new life. I don’t believe it’s possible to preserve things exactly the way they once were. If you do that to something, it freezes and dies.”

      Building an audience for a style of music many consider antiquated was surprisingly easy. Badash suggests there’s a new generation that’s fascinated by a language from a time when the world wasn’t as complicated.

      As background, Badash offers that Israel was settled by European Jews whose musical favourites were the classical composers of Europe. In the decades that followed, Jews from Arabic countries arrived, bringing new traditions with them. While initially dismissed as simple and unrefined, the musical traditions of those later immigrants gradually became an important part of life in Israel.

      “A lot of young musicians in their 20s and 30s have really tried to go back in time for inspiration,” Badash says. “Maybe what they look for isn’t in their parents’ house, so they find it in their grandparents’ house. Even though we are here in Israel, we are connected to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. You cannot escape that, and you cannot build a country that is not connected to the roots of the people in it.”

      She continues: “So today, with Israeli musicians, you can find a lot of projects that are connected to the Yemeni tradition, or North African, or Libyan or Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan stuff—all the Middle East.” And that is, Badash is thrilled to report, building bridges that didn’t exist in the past.

      “The problem is always the fear,” she says. “If the government makes you afraid, you are so busy with your fear you can’t think outside of it and come from a place of love. I can only hope that things will change in the future and everyone will find a way to talk and live together in peace and harmony. I just hope through our music we bring peace and help people feel more connected to their neighbours.”

      Baladino plays the Fox Cabaret on March 5 as part of the 2016 Chutzpah Festival.