If like me your Jewish history is strongest when it’s referring to way back with Abraham and Moses, but gets a bit more woolly when it comes to the last thousand years. So if you’re up for it, here’s a bit of historical background. (Probably the first and last time you’ll get a history lesson on AiB.) To quote from the concert programme:
Ladino – the language [in which most of the songs were] sung in – is Castilian Spanish as it was spoken at the end of the 15th century … When in 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain, los desterrados (the exiles) carried with them a Spanish language and culture which they and their descendents proudly maintained down to very recent times.
Until the Second World War, Ladino-speaking Jews could be found in Salonika, the Balkans, North Africa, Turkey and throughout the Levant (with important outposts in Amsterdam, London and North and South America).
It was as if there was a community of English exiles scattered across the globe still speaking the language of Shakespeare and performing the songs of minstrels from the time of Henry VIII.
The Jews’ connection with Spain might be traced all the way back to the time of King Solomon. Certainly, some arrived as captives forced to leave the Holy Land in Roman times. But the Middle Ages say bloody conflict between the three Abrahamic faiths in Spain:
[It] was a time of Muslim conquest, Christian reconquest, massacre and counter massacre, forced disputations between spokesmen of rival faiths, the unspeakable cruelty of death by auto da fe (fire) and Inquisition. Such intolerance culminated in the devastating forced conversions and expulsions on 1492, coincidentally the year Columbus set sail to America.
Yet before the final conflict, there was a Golden Age of coexistence and collaboration between the three faiths communities as they lived beside each other. Cooperating over
“philosophy, poetry, architecture, art and Biblical commentary”.
So with that in mind, we’ll shoot forwards to last Sunday night when the local Jewish community opened their doors and offered warm hospitality to friends and strangers from across Belfast. Spanish & Turkish speakers (the Spanish Society, the Latin-American Society, Salsa classes, teachers, lecturers and others), congregation and clergy from local churches, Northern Ireland Muslim Families Association, photographers, journalists, musicians, the odd blogger or two, and a few AiB readers too.
I’d scribbled down various ideas during the concert. But having lost my piece of paper, I’ve delayed typing up my memories of a very good evening.
Los Desterrados certainly know how to put their heart into their performance. While my Spanish is limited to what I’ve picked up from Dora the Explorer (Ola!) the quick introduction to each song was enough to allow my mind to paint a picture of each song’s story using the melody, rhythm and mood.
There was a lot of love, unrequited love mostly. A song whose translated title expressed a cross-cultural truism “My mother-in-law is evil”. (Which I’m pleased to say is not true in my case!) In amongst the sadness and the heartache, there were songs celebrating Abraham and prophets too. Something for everyone.
With a lively blend of confident violin, acoustic guitars, flute, a massive Lambeg-drum-sized boron, bongos, bass guitar and many voices, there were times when the music sounded distinctly Celtic. We could have been a mile or so away in a bar, with Ladino substituted with Irish or English, and it wouldn’t have sounded out of place.
The drummer was fascinating. Probably should call him a percussionist! Sitting on top of his box drum, banging and smoothing it with his hands, I wondered if he’d ever considered playing in a skiffle band?
There was passion, lots of arm waving and finger clicking, and towards the end, even some dancing along the back aisle of the synagogue.
While I didn’t understand
too much any of what was being sung, there was a great atmosphere. A warm welcome, a real buzz during the interval, and a coming together of different sets of people who didn’t normally get to mix. Opening up the synagogue on a Sunday evening for a Ladino/Spanish concert was a bit of a risk. But with hard work, pain-staking (and personal) promotion, some help from Belfast City Council, and an imaginative theme, it really paid off.
Northern Ireland has a lot to thank its small Jewish community for. Business acumen, political interest (more Lord Mayors than you’d imagine), the Millisle farm that took in young Jewish refugees from Europe during the Second World War and more besides. Sunday night’s concert felt like a small but valuable contribution to enriching the culture of Belfast and Northern Ireland, forging friendships, and maybe doing some of what the Ladino Jews enjoyed in their Golden Age ... cooperating over
philosophy, poetry, architecture, art and Biblical commentary.