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Aviva Chernick pays tribute to the keeper of Balkan Ladino song tradition

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Aviva Chernick on the cover of La Serena.

On her latest album, La Serena, singer Aviva Chernick pays tribute to her teacher, Flory Jagoda, a Sephardic musician known as the keeper of the Balkan Ladino song tradition.

Chernick, the former vocalist of the band Jaffa Road, has devoted herself to exploring Sephardic music. She discovered Jagoda’s music when she came across one of her blessings online, a bracha for the lighting of the candles.

Chernick met Jagoda at her first Canadian performance in December 2008. “I’d been looking for someone like her for so long, to deepen my exploration of this music,” Chernick said. Then, twice a year, Chernick began travelling to Alexandria, Va., from Toronto, to study with Jagoda. “I was most moved by the time together, particularly sharing stories,” Chernick said.

Jagoda, born in Sarajevo, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1926. She learned songs from her nona, her grandmother, who knew the musical traditions passed down through her Sephardic family. Sephardic Jews, sometimes referred to as Ladinos, settled in the Balkans after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century.

Forty-two members of Jagoda’s family were victims of the Holocaust, among them her beloved nona. To honour her, Jagoda decided to preserve the songs of her Ladino family, and has recorded them on several albums. Some of the songs are universal, like stories of lost love, but many are specific to Sephardic culture, Chernick said.

Over the past few decades, Jagoda composed new songs, now considered part of the Balkan Ladino song tradition. Jagoda’s Judeo-Spanish is mixed with the local languages of the Balkans, including Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria.

Chernick recorded four of Jagoda’s original songs on her new album, including “Laz Tiyas,” (“The Aunties”), a song about festival celebrations – Hanukkah, Passover and Sukkot – in the homes of Jagoda’s aunts.

Chernick is joined by co-vocalist Maryem Toller on a reimagined version of “Laz Tiyas.” “My intention has been to honour the essence of what was conveyed to me, that was shared to me, and to do it in a way that felt authentic artistically to me,” Chernick said. “It sounds the same (as Jagoda’s rendition) but also different … (it’s) of this moment, right here, right now.”

Chernick’s album also includes several traditional Sephardic folk songs. The title track, “La Serena” (The Siren)is about a siren who calls out to sailors. Chernick first heard it at the 2006 Ashkenaz Festival, performed by Marcelo Moguilevsky of Klezmer Buenos Aires.“I fell quickly in love with both the story and the melody. I’d been living with that song for a long time without ever having recorded it,” Chernick said. She sings a haunting rendition of the ballad in her ethereal, clear-as-a bell voice.

Another Sephardic song on the album,“Arvoles Yoran” (“Trees Cry For You”), is about the separation of lovers. In the liner notes, Chernick notes that the song was adopted by Greek Jews who chanted it on their way to the gas chambers.

“Esta Montanya De Frente” (“This Mountain Ahead”), a ballad about lost love, is the first Ladino song Chernick learned.

Chernick has also recorded Hebrew songs on the album, including “Min Hameitzar” (“From the Narrows”), with lyrics from Psalm 118:5, set to music she composed with one of her collaborators, bassist Justin Gray. Gray and guitarist Joel Schwartz arranged and produced the album.

Chernick will be launching La Serena at her home synagogue, Or Shalom Congregation, in London, Ont., on Sept.16, doors open 7 p.m., and at 918 Bathurst St., Toronto, on Sept. 19, doors open 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit avivachernick.com.

Chernick is also appearing at the Kiever Synagogue in Toronto with singer David Wall, at 3 p.m. on Sept. 15, as part of the Kensington Market Jazz Festival. They will be performing contemplative music for the upcoming holidays. For festival information, visit kensingtonjazz.com.

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