FolkWorld #78 07/2022
© Devon Léger (Hearth Music)

Across the Western Ocean

The Heart of Women Has Remained the Same

The new album from Ladino singer, songwriter, and fiddler Lily Henley, Oras Dezaoradas, is a collection of beautiful old ballads of Sephardic Jewish women across the centuries. These songs were always carried by women, but more than that they were always adapted by women to the current times, the current sounds of where they had moved along the forced diaspora. The result is a beautiful testament to the heart of women in song, channeling old voices of course, but also reminding us that these voices felt the same things that people today feel.

Lily Henley

Artist Audio Lily Henley "Oras Dezaoradas", Own label, 2022

When singer, fiddler, songwriter, and composer Lily Henley set out to make an album of Sephardic Jewish ballads set to new melodies, she was looking for her own way to interpret a tradition that she saw as critically endangered. With Oras Dezaoradas, to be released on May 6, 2022, Henley wanted to highlight the Ladino language, a threatened tongue that fuses old Spanish with Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish elements and is spoken by less than 100,000 people in the world today. What she didn’t expect was to find herself directly connected to centuries of women spread across a forced global diaspora. Expelled from Spain on penalty of death by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, Sephardic Jews kept their culture alive as they moved throughout North Africa and the Ottoman empire. These old ballads, some dating back to the expulsion, carry the hopes and dreams, the daily worries, and existential thoughts of the Sephardic people. In setting these songs to newly composed melodies, Henley brings new life to the words of these songs and to the independent female characters in them and directly inserts herself into the tradition in a transformative way, including writing three original Ladino songs of her own. “There are so few young musicians in this song tradition,” Henley explains, “and, to me, doing an album of the old melodies, re-recording what people have already recorded, didn’t make me excited. This feels inspiring because I'm creating music that feels really authentic and original to me and I’m adding to this tradition that is very endangered.”

Lily Henley

Artist Video

Known for her expressive songwriting, gifted fiddling, and ability to bring together American and Jewish traditions, the spark for Lily Henley’s new album Oras Dezaoradas, came from melodic compositions she had been working on for an upcoming solo album of original material. Building new melodies inspired by American folk traditions unexpectedly dovetailed with Henley’s work with Sephardic song traditions and texts. She came to realize that the traditional Sephardic songs she had been singing for years could meld perfectly with the tunes she was writing. “Some of the lyrics I was playing around with from Sephardic songs just fell into the music so organically that I can barely remember writing most of the melodies,” she says. “I was always hoping I’d find a new voice like this. It took a lot of time for me to feel like it was a valid voice.” Invited by Sephardic community leader and head of record label Lior éditions, François Azar, Henley traveled to Paris to record her new album, embraced by the Sephardic community in the City of Light, the largest Sephardic community in Europe. She was joined by fellow fiddler Duncan Wickel and bassist Haggai Cohen Milo (himself half Sephardic). “We recorded Oras Dezaoradas in Montreuil, outside Paris, at this beautiful studio,” Henley says. “It was very special because François was there, another person who could really understand these lyrics and this culture. He was sitting in the control room helping keep the emotion of the music centered around these stories.”

Coupled with Henley’s compositions, the songs on Oras Dezaoradas sparkle with life. Drawn from living sources, old archives, and medieval love poems, the songs are part of Sephardic women’s vocal traditions across many countries. Since, historically, women weren’t allowed to participate in Sephardic liturgical singing, these folk songs became a place for Sephardic women to pour their lives into song. “There is a very strong female hand in the creation of these songs,” Henley says. “Much of the music was kept alive and added to by women, and in doing so they were really going against standard gender roles.” While women in the Western ballad canon can usually only find agency through murdering wayward lovers, the women in Sephardic songs display a powerful independence and the songs are full of discussions between lovers, young daughters seeking advice from mothers, complaints about daily life, and grief from young women left widowed by war. The melodies of these songs were fluid, usually adapted from surrounding musical traditions in the diaspora. For Henley, this presented a chance to craft new melodies inspired by her own work and travels and to add to the tradition in the same way Sephardic women have done for centuries. It’s a remarkable bit of songcraft from Henley, indicative of the deep immersion she’s had in Ladino song, to the point that new songs roll off her tongue as easily as the ancient ones.

Basic Folk
Artist Audio Fiddler and singer-songwriter Lily Henley joins the Basic Folk podcast for a conversation about her latest album Oras Dezaoradas, celebrating her Sephardic Jewish Heritage, and a brief overview of the Jewish diaspora.

With Oras Dezaoradas, American roots musician Lily Henley has achieved a remarkable feat. She’s brought new life to centuries-old songs and shown that the heart of women has remained the same across hundreds of years. These ballads of the Sephardim sound as modern today as when they were written thanks to Henley’s creative compositional settings, and her original songs could have fit into a salon gathering in the Ottoman Empire just as easily. There’s a tendency to view non-European cultures as exotic, which is something that Henley bristles against and a key reason for her work to re-contextualize this music and to show its relevance. “There’s nothing exotic about these stories,” she says. “Things are only exotic as long as you don’t understand them or as long as they don’t feel connected to you. The way I’ve connected to these stories is through music that feels familiar to me, and hopefully will feel somewhat familiar to people listening as well.”

Lily Henley is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer who has brought her melodically rich songwriting style and synergistic exploration of Sephardi and American folk traditions to audiences across the United States and abroad. She has performed solo, with her own band, and alongside numerous artists including clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer, fiddler Brittany Haas, Grammy-nominees Rushad Eggleston and Canadian folk group The Duhks, as well as Irish guitar phenom John Doyle, and in video collaborations with the Emmy-nominated Shanghai Restoration Project. Lily's 2012 debut record, “Words Like Yours” draws on her background in American, Celtic, and Sephardic folk traditions, as well as experiences from an unconventional childhood spent moving regularly with her family to more than a dozen locations across the US and abroad. The album was produced by Jazz composer and bass phenom Omer Avital in English, Judeo-Spanish, and Hebrew. Her subsequent 2016 EP "To Show, To Shine" features five folk inflected Indie-pop collaborations with Brooklyn-based songwriter Jake Sherman, including single "Icarus" featuring a music video which premiered at the Festival of Dance Film in Berlin. In 2017 Lily founded the Folk Fights Back collective, along with Nashville-based musicians Rachel Baiman and Kaitlyn Raitz. Together they facilitated dozens of Folk music concerts in a dozen US, Canadian and European cities, raising funds in support of direct-action community organizations working on environmental litigation, immigrant rights, women's issues, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial justice. Lily produced five concerts in New York City featuring musicians including members of Lake Street Dive, The Mariachi Academy of New York, The Klezmatics, and the Colbert Late Show house band. Lily has written for Americana journal No Depression and been featured as a performer on NY Times columnist Randy Cohen's 'Person Place Thing' public radio show alongside guests including actresses Julianne Moore and Danai Gurira. She has been featured at venues including the Festival des Cultures Juives in Paris, the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival, the Transylvania Jazz Festival, the New York Sephardic Music Festival, and at Carnegie Hall. Lily was recognized as a 2019 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow Finalist in Music/Sound from The New York Foundation for the Arts, as a 2020 New Jewish Culture Fellow, and a 2021 Fulbright award winner. Lily is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, France.

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Lily Henley (by Ally Schmaling); (3) Basic Folk (unknown/website).

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