Berkeley singer brings Ladino classics to life in performances, CD

Most people probably associate 1492 with Columbus’ discovery of America. Singer Rivka Amado associates it with something else: the expulsion and scattering of the Sephardic Jews from Spain, her ancestors among them.

For Amado, her family’s Sephardic culture lived on in the Ladino language and music she heard growing up in Israel. These days, the Berkeley resident brings that culture to life with lectures and musical performances of Ladino classics.

She recently released her debut CD, “Hija Mia” (which means “my daughter” in both Ladino and Spanish). It contains 15 Ladino songs, most of them — like the popular “Adio Kerida” — tunes Amado learned long ago when her grandmother would sing her to sleep.

Most of Amado’s adult life has been devoted to academia. She taught ethics and political science at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, as well as at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. But in a kind of mid-life reawakening, Ladino music took hold of her and wouldn’t let go.

“It was part of the process to search for my roots and find out about my own personal identity as a Sephardic woman,” she says. “The songs help me reconnect with my roots. The music is a wonderful vehicle to understand who I am as a person.”

Rivka Amado

Five years ago, Amado moved to Berkeley with her son and husband, a law professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. It meant giving up her tenure at Bar Ilan and devoting more time to motherhood. But it also meant a turn back to music.

“Life sometimes leads us to very interesting journeys,” she says. “For many years Ladino music was buried in me. But when I moved here, I began to rediscover these songs.”

Working with guitarist Joel Siegel, she arranged Ladino folk tunes with authenticity in mind. Her voice is strong yet unadorned. Guitars and violins, along with flourishes of bouzouki and Middle Eastern percussion, lend the songs — most of which are hundreds of years old — a breezy Iberian warmth.

After their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, many Sephardic Jews settled in the former Ottoman Empire, which welcomed them.

Sephardic culture thrived in Turkey and the Balkans, where Amado’s ancestors lived until immigrating to Palestine.

“Because Jews were scattered around, there was some cultural exchange,” Amado notes. “You can identify melodies that resemble Turkish tunes, or Bulgarian, Greek, even Arabic. Ladino music is a conglomerate of the multiculturalism of the Sephardim, but the roots are in the Iberian Peninsula.”

While devoting all her working time to music, Amado remains ever the professor. Besides concerts, she has several prepared lectures she gives — one on the history of the Sephardim, one on the Ladino language and one on the music.

Like Yiddish, Ladino language and culture have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Bar Ilan University offers courses in Ladino, and Amado estimates there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Ladino speakers in Israel.

Because she views it as a living culture, Amado wants to contribute. Her CD includes an original song she has written, as well as a track by Flory Jagoda, one of the world’s most revered interpreters of Ladino music.

“As a descendent of Sephardic Jewry,” Amado says, “I have a duty to carry forth this tradition and inspire more about this heritage.”

Rivka Amado’s “Hija Mia” is available through her Web site, www.rivkamusic.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.