In 1492, around 300,000 Sephardic Jews faced a terrible quandary: convert to Catholicism, flee their home country of Spain, or risk being killed through the Spanish Inquisition. Some who escaped preserved their culture in song form as they resettled throughout North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.
Historically, Sephardic women were not allowed to sing in liturgical settings, so folk songs became their vehicles for musical expression. The tunes were sung in Ladino—a mixture of Old Spanish, Hebrew, and other languages—endangered and now spoken by fewer than 100,000 people. Melodies were malleable, often reworked to reflect local musical practices.
Not long ago, the brilliant singer-songwriter, guitarist, and fiddler Lily Henley decided to put her own imprint on the tradition. While working on material for a solo album inspired by the American folk tradition, she realized that the melodies she had prepared lent themselves to reworkings of old Sephardic songs already in her repertoire.
The results of this fusion, along with three originals in Ladino, are heard on Oras Dezaoradas (“Hours Without Hours”), where Henley offers her unique takes on Sephardic songs while also helping preserve the language. It is not necessary to understand all the history or even the lyrics to appreciate the great beauty of this album, with its neat blend of traditional American sounds and mysterious melodies, its stirring arrangements, and its intricate fingerpicked accompaniments played on two decidedly different guitars—a mid-1960s Harmony Sovereign H1260 and a 1940s Martin 0-18T tenor.