With Ladino compilation, vocalist gets in tune with her family’s fading history
Israeli-American Tutti Druyan hopes release of song collection ‘Kantika’ revives interest in the endangered Judeo-Spanish language once spoken by her ancestors
BOSTON — Tutti Druyan grew up in a home reverberating with music as the daughter of two successful Israeli musicians — singer Gitit Shoval, who catapulted onto the Israeli pop scene as a 13-year-old at the 1979 pre-Eurovision contest, and Ron Druyan, a Berklee College of Music graduate and a sought-after composer and arranger.
The ever-present melodies that reverberated throughout Druyan’s childhood home in the central-Israeli town of Moshav Shoresh during the 1990s and early 2000s included jazz, American and Israeli pop, folk, and classical, echoing the array of musicians who were regular visitors.
The second of four children, Druyan took to the family business from the age of three, when she joined Shoval in leading roles in Hebrew voice-overs for popular hits including “The Smurfs” and the Barbie made-for- DVD movies, produced by her parents’ production company.
In the decades since the 32-year-old Druyan has established an impressive career as a versatile vocalist and voice-over performer.
But from her earliest memories, Druyan was drawn to the less familiar Ladino music and culture of her Sephardic grandfather Nissim Shoval, whose family fled Bulgaria during World War II and made their way to pre-state Israel. While Nissim Shoval’s mother spoke Ladino, the language was not passed down to Druyan’s Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking mother.
“Like with many families, it stopped there,” Druyan told The Times of Israel. “We don’t speak Ladino in my family anymore. But for me, it’s always been a passion and a big area of interest.”
Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, is the language spoken by the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and who resettled mainly in the Ottoman Empire. But the expulsion, the far reaches of the Spanish Inquisition, and the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust took a toll on the language.
Today, there are few Ladino speakers left and the language was classified by UNESCO in 2019 as severely endangered.
Druyan had a thirst to know more, 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 her gigs.
Now, with the upcoming release of “Kantika,” a compilation that features Ladino music, with new arrangements of traditional songs as well as originals, Druyan is realizing her long-time, ambitious dream to create a recording that pays tribute to her Sephardic heritage.
Aimed at today’s modern listeners, “Kantika” — which means “little song” in Ladino — launched with a trailer and a live showcase on March 29 at Brookline Booksmith, a popular local bookstore and event space in Druyan’s neighborhood. The multimedia program included the first performance of a few of the album’s cuts and original album art by Tiandra Ray.
The album’s six tracks will be released one at a time, beginning later this spring.
Druyan, who conceived the project, is its executive producer. Her musical co-collaborators are her younger brother Shaqed Druyan and her husband Edmar Colon, who is a native of Puerto Rico.
Shaqed Druyan is a drummer, producer and sound engineer whose award-winning popular bands have opened on global stages for Peter Frampton, The Doobie Brothers, Matisyahu, and many other popular bands.
Colon, a professor at the 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 Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston’s Arts and Culture Community Impact Fund and Live Arts Boston, a philanthropic arts initiative of the Barr Foundation.
At the core of each of the songs on “Kantika” — including the original compositions — are centuries-old Ladino melody and lyrics, enlivened with a new arrangement that wraps around the traditional.
“We are taking these very 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 old Ladino music is the anchor,” Shaqed Druyan elaborated. “Around that we crafted 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 lots of people can relate to.”
“La Rosa,” an evocative love song, opens with Druyan singing the traditional melody and Ladino lyrics, backed only by a guitar. It then weaves in and out with the original melody and English lyrics, and picks up a percussive, upbeat pop tempo.
“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’s embellished with household sounds in the background as Druyan’s homage to the women who over the generations, have carried the tradition of Sephardic songs by singing them to their children, she said.
Her richly textured voice echoes the song’s haunting lament of the sting of lost love, in a ballad that is believed to predate the 1492 expulsion.
“Recording the songs for ‘Kantika’ has been an introspective journey into the idiosyncrasies of the people who carried these traditions and handed them down through the generations,” Colon said. “They are there to enjoy but also have a higher purpose. The songs are almost sacred.”
“Kantika” is one of the hopeful signs of renewed interest in Ladino that started in the 1990s, according to Gloria Ascher, associate professor emerita at Tufts University and a scholar of Sephardic culture and Ladino. Druyan turned to Ascher as the Ladino consultant for the project, to ensure the authenticity of the lyrics and pronunciation.
“Ladino is flourishing, grasias al Dio (thank God)!” Ascher wrote in an email. The pandemic brought an unexpected surge of people from across the globe signing up for online Ladino classes, Ascher said.
For the past two years, Druyan immersed herself in Ladino music.
“One of the greatest treasures that I found 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 carries an urgent sense of responsibility to share a language that is sadly disappearing.
“Hopefully, a new generation of Ladino speakers can emerge and carry on this language, music, and tradition,” she said.
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