Haunting Spanish-Jewish Sounds from Ljuba Davis

The Ljuba Davis Ladino Ensemble dedicates itself to resurrecting the haunting, cross-pollinated Ladino repertoire that originated in Spain in the days before the Inquisition, when Andalucia was a major center for both Jewish and Arabic culture. Unsurprisingly, what eclectic chanteuse Davis sings – in Ladino, the centuries-old Spanish Jewish dialect – sounds a lot like a whole bunch of other styles, yet it’s different. The songs on their amazing new album have flamenco-tinged acoustic guitars, but the lead lines are carried just as often as by Avram Pengas’ spiky, incisive bouzouki or Rachid Halihal’s oud. The melodies refer to gypsy music, the Middle East or the Balkans just as often as they evoke their Spanish home turf. Davis sings in a nuanced voice that can be quiet and plaintive but also joyous, sailing up to the end of a phrase on the album’s second track with the kind of microtonal “whoop” that’s common in Bulgarian music. The band is playing the album release show on June 15 at 8 at Drom, $10 advance tickets are highly recommended and still available as of today.

The album’s opening track begins with layers of ringing bouzouki and gentle, flamenco-tinged acoustic guitar by Nadav Lev – who’s a one-man flamenco/Middle Eastern army here – and then suddenly explodes into a chromatic gypsy tune, the guitar, bouzouki and oud alternating voices artfully over terse bass, clattering percussion and then a scampering oud solo. Scalerica sets Bulgarian tonalities over a galloping levantine melody while Morenica sways elegantly, its intertwining guitar and bouzouki spiraling upward with lightning, filigreed precision.

Durme, a pensively gorgeous minor-key waltz, contrasts Martin Confurius’ ominous bowed bass with Davis’ stoic vocalese, while Cuando starts out as flamenco and then morphs into a blazing, fiery Balkan dance; the stately Adio Kerida has the longing quality a Mexican ranchera ballad. The album winds up with its two most intense, haunting tracks. The all-too-brief Adir Hu has Davis belting powerfully over a haunting thicket of darkly chromatic guitars, oud and percussion that speeds up at the end; Rachamana, an epic, shifts from a suspenseful flamenco intro to a pulsing Balkan anthem lit up with an adrenalizing series of flurrying solos from Lev, Pengas and Halihal. Kudos to Davis and her band for resurrecting these fascinating songs: they deserve to be much better known. The album comes as a twofer: the complete album and one minus Davis’ vocals (although the guys’ backing vocals are included) for orthodox listeners who won’t allow themselves the forbidden pleasure of listening to a woman’s vocals. Intentionally or not, it also works as karaoke.