Ruth Yaakov Ensemble

Shaatnez: Sephardic Songs of the Balkans

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Just as the Jewish community surrounding medieval and modern Germans came to speak their own variation of German known as Yiddish, so did the Jewish community of Spain develop their own variation of Spanish, known as Ladino. Ladino is the language that the persecuted Jews took with them from Spain to the Balkans and nearby regions of the Ottoman Empire when they, along with the Muslims, were forced out of Spain in 1492. In the Balkans, the refugees known as Sephardic Jews formed a vibrant culture handed down through the centuries. Led by a classically-trained singer from Israel, the Ruth Yaakov Ensemble tries to bring these Balkan and Turkish songs to life again.

On the whole the group does an outstanding job. Oud, violin, tambourine, and sometimes accordion combine to form a rich and rhythmic texture. The songs are fascinating. "Chapkin, Te Quiero" was a Turkish love song adapted to Ladino and found on an old 78 record. It starts with a slow prelude, launches into Turkish dance rhythms, and then introduces the singer lamenting her tale of woe. "Onde Que Topa una Queis Placiente" sounds like something from Fiddler on the Roof.

The one drawback to this otherwise estimable album is that on many tracks Yaakov's voice is recorded to sound as if she was one inch from your ear and screaming. It's not always so bad, but it's a real turn-off on some tracks. For the Jewish roots music fan with tough eardrums.

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