Dying Language Given Life: Ensemble Ibérica with Nani Noam Vazana

Noam “Nani” Vazana performed with Ensemble Ibérica at the 1900 Building. Credit: Neil Battrum

Singers often perform in a language other than their mother tongue, but for versatile musician Noam “Nani” Vazana, she’s transforming her grandmother’s language—Ladino—by performing new and traditional songs in the dying language of the Sephardic Jews. Her Kansas City performance with Ensemble Ibérica was a joyous celebration of this heritage.

This branch of the Jewish people was expelled from Spain following the edict of 1492 and many settled in Northern Africa, where their Judeo-Spanish language kept them connected to their roots and to each other, spread throughout the diaspora. 

Ensemble Ibérica invited Vazana to perform for their series on Wednesday evening for “Musica Ladino.” She is a perfect fit for the ensemble’s mission, which celebrates the music of and influenced by the Iberian peninsula. Both she and Ensemble Ibérica hit the sweet spot between folkloric, classical-adjacent, and modern sounding music. The well-attended concert at the 1900 Building fell during the High Holy Days for the Jewish people, the week of Rosh Hashanah (Happy New Year 5784) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). 

It’s difficult to say how many Ladino speakers exist today, with estimates anywhere from 60,000 to 400,000 (for comparison, well over 300 million people speak English as their first language). Vazana herself did not grow up speaking the language of her ancestors, though she recognized that language in the music her grandmother would sing to her as a little girl.

Vazana is a singer, songwriter, pianist, trombonist, historian, educator, and advocate. She shared the songs’ rich background, some based on text dating back to the 11th and 13th centuries, some traditional, some personal, most composed by Vazana. Her captivating presentation swept from joyful party music to soulful laments as she moved song to song, sometimes at the piano, sometimes dancing, sometimes on trombone (playing on a new horn from Kansas City instrument maker Michael Corrigan of BAC Music). Her dramatic gestures and vivid presence filled in for any lack of comprehension in the language. 

Three stalwarts of the wide-ranging Ensemble Ibérica cohort joined her: founder Beau Bledsoe, on guitar and oud; percussionist John Currey, on a variety of instruments, including cajon, dumbek, frame drum, and suspended cymbals; and cellist Ezgi Karakus. They fully embodied Vazana’s music, adding texture, improvising, and presenting authentic versions of the varied styles.

The concert primarily featured Vazana’s original music written in Ladino, the few traditional songs in the mix given Vazana’s treatment, like “Kuanda El Rey Nimrod,” a joyful tune featuring Middle Eastern mixed meter rhythm that seems to exist specifically to encourage dancing and “Los Guisados de la Berenjena,” with pulsing rhythm and jaunty melody. 

The groovy “Una Segunda Piel” with its catchy ostinato background (the audience encouraged to sing along) was an original piece by Vazana, based on an ancient Sephardic ceremony.

Many of the songs celebrated Vazana’s matriarchal line, and the relationship between mothers and daughters, like the piano forward “No Tiene Hija, No Tiene Amiga,” a song of protection in “Fada de mi Korazon,” a lullaby she remembers her grandmother singing, “Durme Durme,” and the pervasive melody of “No Kero Madre.” Particularly moving was “Sin Dingun Hije Varon,” based on a 11th century poem, about a mother who supports her transgender child. 

The theme of romantic love was featured, too, opening “Landrico” with solo on trombone, a song about a king and queen who, in their old age, still choose each other (and what could be more regal than a trombone?); her original “El Gacela,” based on a 13th poem featuring love between two men, with rousing vocalise; and the traditional “Morenika,” with its gorgeous, haunting melody. 

Whenever Vazana pulled out the trombone, the audience reaction was excitement. “Oh, hello!” said one audience member before “Fada de mi Korazon” and “alright, yes!” said another when she picked up the horn again for “Landrico.” 

Versatile Nani Noam Vazana performs on trombone during Ensemble Ibérica concert at 1900 Building. Credit: Neil Battrum

The rare piece in English was Vazana’s treatment of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” which she began on trombone before switching to lyrics. She also added an original section in Ladino, making an arresting version of the familiar tune. 

There was one instrumental, which opened the second half. This was written by Karakus and harkened to her homeland of Turkey. According to Vazana, the largest population of Ladino speakers reside in Turkey. Karakus produced a wonderful deep sound on her solo turn, with an absorbing melody. They also presented a fun mash-up of a traditional Turkish song and traditional Ladino song in “Çok Seni Severim,” celebrating that connection. 

One of the last tunes was “La Komida la Manyana,” a song about thinking about tomorrow. The vocal line, particularly the buoyant wordless chorus, closely followed the underlying rhythmic pulse with Vazana encouraging the audience to clap along. 

Vazana’s encore was in English, a last sing-along opportunity in “Hey You,” promoting love, self-appreciation, and positive feeling. The audience met the show with a standing ovation, enthused by Vazana’s energy and distinct quality of the concert.

This concert was part of Vazana’s US tour (she’s based in the Netherlands), with festival appearances and a performance at the Library of Congress. In Kansas City, she performed not only with Ensemble Ibérica’s concert series, but for the organization’s new “Behind the Curtain” series at Oak Street Mansion, at The Ship in the West Bottoms, and with UMKC Conservatory, further demonstrating her versatility and the widespread interest in her music and mission.

Reviewed Wednesday, September 20, 2023. For more information about Ensemble Ibérica visit www.ensembleiberica.org. For information on Nani Noam Vazana visit www.nanimusic.com.  

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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