The Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble has performed all over the world, including Australia and New Zealand and at some of the major venues in Jerusalem. Band members play the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument similar to a mandolin; Spanish guitar; and the oud. The musicians as diverse as their instruments. Avram Pengas was born in Athens, Greece. Nadav Lev, the guitarist, grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. Percussionist Osama Farouk hails from Egypt and oud player Rachid Halihal grew up in Morocco. Singer Ljuba Davis was born in America, although her grandmother used to tell her, “Never forget that your family are Sephardim. That you came from Spain.”
At times, the sound of their music is reminiscent of Indian music, while at other times one hears the quick clear notes of flamenco music.
“The language of the vocals is Ladino, which is similar to Castilian Spanish with some Arabic and Hebrew thrown in,” Ms. Davis said. Those familiar with Spanish or Portuguese will pick up words now and then, but the vocals feature the guttural tones of the language’s Hebrew component. Ms. Davis has a very strong voice, a wide range, and is capable of reproducing the unique sounds of a variety of languages.
Many of the tunes are rhythmic, upbeat, and danceable. Others have a melancholy, transcendent quality. The instrumentation is so lovely it could stand on its own, but with the addition of Ms. Davis’s strong, clear, beautiful voice, the effect is magical.
“Ladino music has elements of Middle Eastern music,” she said. “And you can feel the balminess and the lyricism of the music of Spain evoking the land and the weather.”
Ms. Davis comes from a musical family: “My father was a professional violinist and had a wonderful voice. I’ve been involved with music all my life; I studied cello, violin, and piano.”
While attending nursing school in Boston in the 1960s, she started singing folk music in coffee houses and continued performing while living in Cleveland and then Chicago.
Ms. Davis speaks with enthusiasm when describing the Ladino music: “It gets your blood jumping. You want to get up and move. It runs the gamut of music. Some of it is lyrical—beautiful lullabies. Then there are things that make you just want to get up and dance, clap your hands, and move around. It’s exciting music. It’s just magical. You feel like you’re in the desert and you want to get up and dance in the sand.” The group’s double CD was released in 2011.