Baladino: Sharing ancient sounds of Ladino music with people in Chicago and the Midwest

This weekend, my older son accomplished a major feat – he finished his homework for Tuesday a whole day early. What brought on this desire to complete it ahead of schedule? The opportunity to see Baladino, a Mediterranean folk band, last night right here in our hometown of Chicago. And, I was beyond thrilled for many reasons.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Baladino until I saw a “tweet” about last night’s performance at the Chicago Culture Center. But, I love international music, I’ve spent time in Israel, and I studied Hebrew when I was younger, so I had to find out more.

With my phone in hand, I quickly clicked on one of Baladino’s YouTube videos. I was immediately enthralled with their sound, which intricately combines century-old harmonies from Spain, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries – in a fresh, new way. And, my older son, who slyly snuck up behind me while I was watching the video, became enamored with Baladino, too.

My son quickly grabbed my phone to get a closer look at Baladino and listen as the five-member group played their songs on a wide-array of familiar and foreign drums and wind and string instruments. When the Yonnie Dror, the group’s wind percussionist, started making the most magical of sounds out of a long, white PVC pipe, my son was hooked - and I knew we had to go the concert.

A six-week tour of the Midwest – in the heart of the winter

Baladino sharing its musical sounds and heritage with the audience at the Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago was the last stop of Baladino’s six-week tour of the Midwest. Yes, these five Israelis drove through snow and cornfields for six whole weeks – as they were able to laugh about with the audience on a warm spring day in Chicago last night.

Their tour was made possible by Arts Midwest, an organization that brings international performers to communities throughout the Midwest, helping to expose residents to music heard, played and enjoyed around the world.

To me, it’s really incredible that the tour helped expose so many people here in Illinois and in our neighboring states to music originally played by Jewish people exiled from Spain and Portugal, who traveled through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco and other lands, and now live in, around and near Israel.

While I’ve heard Yiddish and Israeli music both here and in Israeli, I’d never heard Jewish Sephardic and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) music. For me, it encapsulated the many sounds of Israel, a country made up of people who migrated there from all over the world.

Baladino’s music was lively, engaging, enthralling and mystical – and I could have listened to it all night long.

A harmony of so much beauty, so much feeling and so much history

During its performance, Baladino played about 11 songs, including several from its new album, Dos Amantes. Many of the songs were sung in Hebrew and Ladino – with one sung in Yiddish (to appease the mother of Tomer Moken, the group’s guitar player, violinst and overall string musical instrument aficionado, how goodheartedly shared a tale of the strength of Jewish mother guilt with us.)

While I couldn’t understand many of the words song by the group’s lead singer, Yael Badash, I could feel the meaning of each one in its rhythym and harmony - and I'm sure the same can be said of my two sons seated next to me.

Yonnie Dror of Baladino creating magical sounds using a white PVC pipe

Yonnie Dror of Baladino creating magical sounds using a white PVC pipe

Several of the songs celebrated the group’s homeland of Israel, with titles like “I want to go to Jerusalem,” “Love song for the sea,” and “The language of my home.” At one point, Badash shared a wish for peace among the people of the Middle East, noting that great music is made when people come together in a peaceful harmony.

As the group went into each new song, it was hard not to note each of the new instruments many of the group's members would pick up and play. That in and of itself was amazing, mesmerizing and enthralling. You didn’t know what sound you'd hear next. In some cases, it was hard to believe such an ancient, mystical sound could come from an upright string bass, a windchime, a large drum, a violin, a shofar - and, yes, even a PVC pipe.

Both of my sons were enchanted by it all. My younger one hurriedly tried to draw as many of the instruments as possible before the lights went down in the theater. And, my older son quickly asked to buy the group's new CD.

A bit of family history revealed to me and my sons

My mother accompanied me and my sons to the Baladino concert last night. She grew up in a household were Yiddish was spoken and it was only natural to hear the strains of Yiddish music around her.

A closer look at the same instrument played by my great grandmother when she was a girl in Romania

A closer look at the same instrument played by my great grandmother when she was a girl in Romania

But, the one thing that immediately caught her attention was the upright string bass played by Daniel Spair. As she revealed to me for the first time, my great grandmother, who I never met, used to play the same instrument when she was in an all-female orchestra led by her father in Romania.

This was the first time I had learned about this piece of musical history within my own family – and a piece about their life before they came to the U.S. from Romania in search of a better, easier life. It made the whole experience of watching this Mediterranean folk band, playing sounds of traditional Jewish Saphardic and Ladino, all the more special and more meaningful – especially since it was something I was able to do with my mom and my sons.

And, for that reason and more, I repeatedly thanked my older son for finishing his homework ahead of schedule so we could spend a Monday evening together

My younger son's artistic interpretation of the many instruments played by Baladino

My younger son's artistic interpretation of some of the instruments played by Baladino

being exposed to new music and new stories – from around the world and across our family tree.

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