Lily Henley’s powerful album reworking and writing Sephardic songs in Ladino is out now

Article Contributed by HearthMusic | Published on Sunday, May 8, 2022

Lily Henley’s new album Oras Dezaoradas is out today! Dialoguing with centuries of Sephardic Jewish women across a global forced diaspora, Henley’s re-writing and re-working old Sephardic ballads in the endangered Ladino language, uncovering a heritage of fiercely independent women that kept these traditions alive over the years. She’s also writing new songs in Ladino, keeping the tradition fresh.

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 on Lior Éditions, 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.”

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.”