With Ladino compilation, vocalist gets in tune with her family’s fading history

BOSTON – Tutti Druyan grew up in a home resounding with music as the daughter of two successful Israeli musicians – singer Gitit Shoval, who participated in Israeli pop at the age of 13 at the pre- -Eurovision 1979, and Ron Druyan, a graduate of Berklee College of Music and a popular composer and arranger.

Among the ever-in-the-moment tunes that reverberated in Druyan’s childhood home in the central-Israeli town of Moshav Shoresh during the 1990s and early 2000s were jazz, American and Israeli pop, folk and classical, echoing the range of musicians who were regular visitors.

The second of four children, Druyan joined the family business from the age of three, when she joined Shoval in leading roles in Hebrew voices for popular hits including “The Smurfs” and the movies Barbie made-for-DVD, produced by her parents’ production company.

In the intervening years, 32-year-old Druyan has established an impressive career as a versatile performer and vocal performer.

But from her earliest memories, Druyan was drawn to the music and Ladino culture that was less familiar to her Sephardic grandfather Nissim Shoval, whose family fled Bulgaria during World War II and made their way to their homeland of Israel. Although Nissim Shoval’s mother spoke Ladino, the language was not handed down to Druyan’s Israeli mother, who speaks Hebrew.

“Like many families, it stopped there,” Druyan told The Times of Israel. “We no longer speak Ladino in my family. But for me, it was always a matter of passion and interest.”

Photo by Tutti Druyan for the album ‘Kantika.’ (Courtesy)

Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, is the language spoken by the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and resettled mainly in the Ottoman Empire. But the deportation, the distant Spanish Inquisition, and the mass murder of the Jews during the Holocaust took a toll on the language.

Today, very few Ladino speakers remain and the language was classified by UNESCO in 2019 as critically endangered.

Druyan was thirsty for more information, and over the years she sought out Ladino music wherever she could.

“I fell in love with these songs,” said Druyan, who includes Ladino songs in his gigs.

Now, with the release of “Kantika”, a collection featuring Ladino music, new arrangements of traditional songs as well as originals, Druyan is achieving his long-held ambitious dream of creating a record that honors his Sefaric heritage. .

Aimed at today’s modern listeners, “Kantika” – which means “little song” in Ladino – launched with a trailer and live demo on March 29 at Brookline Booksmith, a popular local bookstore and event space in the Druyan neighborhood. The multimedia program included the premiere of some of the album clips and original album art by Tiandra Ray.

The album’s six tracks will be released one after the other, starting later this spring.

Druyan, who conceived the project, is its executive producer. Her musical collaborators are her younger brother Shaqed Druyan and her husband Edmar Colon, who is from Puerto Rico.

Shaqed Druyan is a drummer, producer and sound engineer whose popular award-winning bands have opened on world stages for Peter Frampton, The Doobie Brothers, Matisyahu, and many other popular bands.

Photo by Shaqed Druyan for the album ‘Kantika.’ (Courtesy)

Colon, a professor at Berklee College of Music, is a saxophonist, pianist and composer who has worked with renowned jazz musicians from the late Wayne Shorter to Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington. He is currently working on a commission for the Boston Pops.

The project received grants from the Arts and Culture Community Impact Fund of Greater Boston and Live Arts Boston, a philanthropic arts initiative of the Barr Foundation, on this project.

At the heart of each of the songs on “Kantika” – including the original compositions – are centuries-old Ladino melodies and lyrics, enlivened with a new arrangement that covers the traditional.

“We’re taking these really old songs and making them new. We are staying true to the original melodies while adding new material,” Druyan told The Times of Israel in a joint Zoom call with Shaqed Druyan and Colon.

“The anchor is old Ladino music,” explained Shaqed Druyan. “Around that we made something more accessible to a wider and younger audience. The idea is to present Ladino as a language and also the history and the music in a way that many people can relate to.”

“La Rosa,” an evocative love song, opens with Druyan singing the traditional Ladino melody and lyrics, backed by only guitar. Then he weaves in and out with the original melody and English lyrics, and picks up a punchy, lively pop tempo.

Photo by Edmar Colon for the album ‘Kantika.’ (Courtesy)

“Sharpest of Thorns,” Druyan’s original lyrical English translation of the Ladino song, “Puncha Puncha,” opens with Druyan, a capella, singing “Puncha, Puncha,” in Ladino. It is decorated with house sounds in the background as Druyan’s tribute to the women who carried the tradition of Sephardic songs over the generations by singing them to their children, she said.

Her richly textured voice echoes the song’s elegant longing for the ray of lost love, in a ballad believed to predate the 1492 expulsion.

“Recording the songs for ‘Kantika’ was an introspective journey into the privacy of the people who carried these traditions and passed them down through the generations,” said Colon. “They are there to be enjoyed but they also have a higher purpose. The songs are almost sacred.”

“Kantika” is one of the hopeful signs of a renewed interest in Ladino that began in the 1990s, according to Gloria Ascher, an associate professor emerita at Tufts University and a scholar of Sephardic and Ladino culture. Druyan turned to Ascher as a Ladino consultant for the project, to ensure the authenticity of the lyrics and pronunciation.

“Ladino is flourishing, Gracias al Dio (Thank God)!” Ascher wrote in an email. The pandemic has led to an unexpected surge of people from around the globe signing up for online Ladino classes, Ascher said.

For the past two years, Druyan has immersed himself in Ladino music.

“One of the greatest treasures I discovered was the 1967 recording ‘BeShira Ladino,’ by The Parvarim. In many ways, ‘Kantika’ exists because of my love for this album,” said Druyan.

Beyond her love of Ladino music, Druyan has an urgent responsibility to share a language that is sadly disappearing.

“I hope that a new generation of Ladino speakers will be able to come forward and continue this language, music and tradition,” she said.

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