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.”
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.
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.”