Local fans of world music are in for a treat. On Monday, July 22, the Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble (LDL Ensemble) will front a universal band of musicians in a unique program of music that encompasses the influences of many lands.
Last summer, LDL Ensemble wowed a sell-out New York audience with her renditions of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) music. The Village Voice gave the concert a rave review, saying, “This grandmother and mother of seven knows how to vocalize a wide range of emotions, including the necessarily somber mood occasioned by petitioning God for mercy during the Yom Kippur prayer.”
The Drom Nightclub, where the concert took place, specializes in authentic music of various cultures of the world. Ladino is the music of the Sephardic Jews, who settled in areas around the Mediterranean after being expelled from Spain during the inquisition. Because of the nomadic nature, the music encompasses stylings of many different nations.
“They picked up music from wherever they settled — the Balkans, Northern Africa, the Ukraine,” Ms. Davis, who lives in Vineyard Haven, said.
The music on the group’s CD East and West is a textural mix of music of various cultures. The instruments themselves represent a range of traditional music. Band members variously play the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument similar to a mandolin; Spanish guitar; and the oud, a lute-like instrument commonly played in Arab and other Middle Eastern cultures.
The sound at times is reminiscent of classic Indian music, while at other times one hears the quick clear notes of flamenco music. The language of the vocals is Ladino. “Ladino is similar to Castilian Spanish with some Arabic and Hebrew thrown in,” Ms. Davis said. Those familiar with Spanish or Portuguese will pick up words now and then, but the vocals feature the guttural tones of the language’s Hebrew component. Ms. Davis has a very strong voice, a wide range, and is capable of reproducing the unique sounds of a variety of languages.
Many of the tunes are rhythmic, upbeat, and danceable. Others have a melancholy, transcendent quality. The instrumentation is so lovely it could stand on its own, but with the addition of Ms. Davis’s strong, clear, beautiful voice, the effect is magical.
“Ladino music has elements of Middle Eastern music,” she said. “And you can feel sometime the balminess and the lyricism of the music of Spain evoking the land and the weather.”
Ms. Davis comes from a musical family: “My father was a professional violinist and had a wonderful voice. I’ve been involved with music all my life; I studied cello, violin, and piano.”
While attending nursing school in Boston in the 1960s, she started singing folk music in coffee houses and continued performing while living in Cleveland and then Chicago. She met her first husband 45 years ago and moved to Berkley, Calif., where she raised seven kids. She led prayer at services as cantor and has been in demand for weddings and services since.
For 20 years, Ms. Davis has also been involved — as executive director and then board president — of California’s Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, the second oldest youth orchestra in the United States. She has travelled on every one of their international trips and accompanied the orchestra to New York for three concerts at Carnegie Hall. She is currently president emeritus.
While on Martha’s Vineyard for a wedding, she met her second husband, Avi Lev, who was also involved in the service as a flute player. “He asked me to dance. We’ve been dancing ever since,” she said. She settled on the Vineyard four years ago with Mr. Lev, who owns a landscaping company. She often serves as cantor at the M.V. Hebrew Center.
The West Virginia native has a Sephardic background and has kept up many of the traditions of her culture. “I cook a lot of Sephardic food and I try to share the music whenever I can,” she said. While in Berkeley, she started recording some of the Ladino songs. “My son David said, ‘Before you’re too old you’ve got to record these songs so your children and your grandchildren will have them.'”
With her band, Ms. Davis has performed all over the world, including Australia and New Zealand and at some of the major venues in Jerusalem. The musicians she recruited for her CD represent a global mix and many of them will be here for the upcoming concert.
“I have a wonderful ensemble of players coming in from New York. They’re very international. The drummer is from Egypt. The oud player is from Morocco. The bazouki player is from Jerusalem. The classical guitarist is from a kibbutz in Israel. My son David is a bass player who lives in Brooklyn.
“The fact that they all took the time off to come here and do this gig with me is nothing short of miraculous.”
Ms. Davis speaks with enthusiasm when describing the Ladino music: “It gets your blood jumping. You want to get up and move. You can’t sit still. It runs the gamut of music. Some of it is lyrical — beautiful lullabies. Then there are things that make you just want to get up and dance, clap your hands, and move around. It’s exciting music, not sad music generally. It’s just magical. You feel like you’re in the desert and you want to get up and dance in the sand.”