Violinist Lily Henley Reinvents Haunting, Ironic Ancient Ladino Folk Tunes
Like most good violinists, Lily Henley has been called on to play all sorts of different styles of music. She got her start in New York playing bluegrass and front-porch folk, but also gravitated toward klezmer music. On her latest album Oras Dezaoradas – streaming at Bandcamp – she takes a deep dive into original Ladino songcraft.
There’s actually plenty of historical precedent for Henley’s decision to take a bunch of old ballads and set them to new melodies: until the advent of recording technology, folk musicians had been doing the same thing, largely uncredited, for thousands of years. One of the main themes that runs through the record is female empowerment, underscoring how important women musicians have been in keeping the tradition of Sephardic Spanish Jewish music alive since the terror of the Inquisition.
For the uninitiated, Ladino is to Spanish what ebonics are to English, more than what Yiddish is to German, so Spanish speakers won’t have a hard time getting the gist of these songs. Henley sings the first of several new versions of centuries-old lyrics with clarity and an airy understatement: the humor and irony in these songs is no less resonant today. The wistful, gently swaying tale that she opens the album with is a prime example, a mother confiding to her child that dad is sneaking home in the middle of the night from his girlfriend’s place. Henley fingerpicks a delicate lattice of guitar on this one; Duncan Wickel adds airy, atmospheric fiddle over the terse pulse of bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo.
Henley and Wickel swap instruments for a mashup of klezmer and Appalachia on the second track, jumping from a brightly waltzing intro to a biting, dancing escape anthem. Henley follows that with a defiant party-girl’s tale set to stark, bouncing minor-key tune with Wickel’s cello front and center.
There’s a cruel undercurrent to the broodingly fingerpicked, minor-key Alta Alta Va La Luna – “how high the moon,” basically. It’s a mother telling her child that they might be better off if they hadn’t been born. From there Henly goes back toward brisk, moody bluegrass for Arvoles Lloran Por Lluvia (Trees Cry For Rain), a bitter tale of exile common in much of diasporic Ladino music.
The album’s title track – meaning “Timeless Clock” – features the first of Henley’s original Ladino lyrics, a melancholy if energetically picked seaside tableau echoing a pervasive sense of abandonment. Esta Noche Te Amare, with equal hints of simmering flamenco drama and rustic Americana, is a fabulistic tale of a fair young maiden who sees her knight in shining armor revealed for what he really is.
The three musicians bounce darkly through the album’s lone instrumental, Muza de la Kozima: the acidic bite of the violin and cello is luscious. In La Galud, Henley paints an aching portrait of celebrations and traditions left behind, maybe for forever, set to a fast, steady waltz. She winds up the album, her anguished voice reaching for the rafters over a bass drone, a young woman recounting her boyfriend’s grim demise. It’s the most distinctly klezmer-adjacent melody here and a spine-tingling closer to this fascinating, imaginative record.