Flory Jagoda

Sephardic musician/composer
A woman playing the guitar.

Photo by Ida Jervis


Flory Jagoda was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a member of the Sephardic Jewish community. When the Sephardic Jews were forced into exile from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, many settled in other Mediterranean countries but preserved their native language, called Ladino. Through her grandmother, Jagoda learned songs that had been passed down in her family for generations. She also became familiar with the region's Balkan cultural traditions. Jagoda escaped the destruction of Sarajevo's Jewish community and came to the United States after World War II. She has been recognized as an important carrier of a unique musical heritage and also as a composer and arranger of new Sephardic songs. In addition to passing that tradition on to her children, she has taught many students who now perform Ladino music. Today, she tours widely and her music is circulated through recordings and in The Flory Jagoda Songbook. She is well known in the Washington, D.C. area for her willingness to perform at religious ceremonies, family celebrations and cultural events. Her performances are marked by musical beauty but also by her commitment to find meaning through affirmation of community in her personal experience.

Interview with Mary K. Lee

NEA: I wanted to congratulate you on your award. What was your reaction when you heard the news?

MS. JAGODA: I really didn't grasp what was happening at first. Then the person who called explained about the awards and I was very, very proud and thrilled with the news. Something like this has never happened to me before.

NEA: Can you tell me about how you learned how to perform this type of music?

MS. JAGODA: It's a survivor's story. It's about the Second World War. I come from a Sephardic family - the word Sephardic comes from the word sepharan, which in Hebrew means Spain and Portugal, the Iberian Peninsula. As you probably know, in 1492 during the Inquisition all the Jews from Spain and Portugal who refused to renounce their faith were expelled from their homeland where they had been for fifteen hundred years. While hundreds of thousands did convert, my ancestors would not. They were expelled and eventually made their way to Turkey, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardin - the Spanish/ Portugese Jews - had the freedom to worship, to build synagogues and to travel throughout the Ottoman Empire. Many went to Greece and Salonika. Greece became home to a large Sephardic community as did Turkey, Bulgaria, the whole area in the Balkans. From Turkey my family then ended up in Sarajevo, where I was born. Since there were so many refugees coming to Sarajevo they moved into the surrounding mountains. They end up in a little mountain village called Vlasenica

I lived with my Nonna, my grandmother, who was a singer. She was a Sephardic singer and had four daughters, three sons. They were all musicians, all folk singers. My Nonna sang to my mother and my mother sang to me and today I sing with my children. The music's been kept alive from generation to generation. It's the same with the language too. The Sephardin - faithfully preserved this language which we call Judea Spanish or Ladino, which comes from the word Ladinard, meaning " to translate the prayer book from Hebrew into Spanish." The language has its roots in 15th century Castillon Spanish. This is the language I speak and the language I spoke at home growing up. The mothers only spoke Ladino to their children.

NEA: Are there also Ladino songs?

MS. JAGODA: My Nonna sang these songs which she learned from her mother who learned from her mother and so on. These songs were passed down from generation to generation with no written music of any kind. These were the treasures of my family.

These songs have Spanish roots but the rhythms are Balkan. The rhythms were adopted from the countries where they settled. Many of these songs sound Turkish or Greek. My songs sound Bosnian.

NEA: What are the lyrics be about?

MS. JAGODA: They're folk songs about daily life - nursery rhymes, romantic songs, love songs, wedding songs, dance songs and holiday songs. I have three recordings and my holiday songs are mostly based on my memories of my family. They were all, all forty-two of them, thrown into a mass grave during World War II. They took all the songs with them. I started writing songs just to remember the life in my little mountain village. My family vanished and they live with me through these songs. The life of holidays and life with my aunts - every holiday we'd spend with a different aunt. In fact we will sing the song I have written about my aunts, Las Tijas, at the concert in Washington. I will sing that song with my family. Most of the songs that I have written are based on the family life that I lost. Some people write books to remember. I write songs to remember.

NEA: Do you have any favorite style of song that you like to perform?

MS. JAGODA: I perform with a mostly very oriental Bosnian style because that's how my Nonna sang. A lot of tills, lots of embellishments. After I came to America I started changing the songs a little, adding more modern chords to make them more familiar for today's ears, so the young would want to learn them. The originals are very oriental and, oh, they would not want to sing them.

NEA: What was your experience like coming to the United States and moving to Northern Virginia?

MS. JAGODA: I came to this country very much in love with the man I married. I met my husband in Italy. Coming to this country was just like starting a new book. The previous book was very scary and tragic and unhappy. I found peace and love in this country. This country has been good to me to this day and to my children and my family.

NEA: And why do you think that this music is so valuable within your family and to your community, your larger community?

MS. JAGODA: To start with, ours was a musical family. Music is what kept us together, especially the singing. Some families have sports and they play golf or they fish. We sang. There was no party without my Nonna with her daughters and sons playing music. That's what I grew up with. I want the music to continue, it's part of the heritage we're trying preserve. I don't how long this will go on. I actually find myself as a member of the last generation of Sephardin who left Spain or the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

My children sing these songs, but nobody will start learning and speaking Ladino anymore. The young people are learning correct Spanish - Ladino is not correct Spanish. It's a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish. Ladino is disappearing little by little, even though colleges in Spain are trying to revive it and there are communities still that cling to this language. In fact, I have a Ladino group in Washington, D.C. that meets once a month just to talk - people from the Balkan countries, Salonika, Greece, Izmir, Turkey, Bulgaria. It's a very emotional gathering because it reminds you of how you were brought up and brings back the sounds of your home.

NEA: Are you also teaching songs to others outside of your family?

MS. JAGODA: Oh yes. I'm very proud that been asked to join this apprenticeship program at University of Virginia. I already have an apprentice and we will be doing a little concert in Charlottesville the 14th of September. The university is financing her lessons with me. She will be working with me for a year.

I work with a lot of choirs, Sunday schools, nursery schools. The Sunday schools actually are interested in the children knowing that there are other Jewish backgrounds where people spoke something other than Yiddish or Hebrew. Ladino was my ancestors' Jewish language.

NEA: And in your teaching at the Sunday Schools and other opportunities, what advice do you usually give to the students?

MS. JAGODA: I don't give them advice. I keep it very simple. I just tell them the songs are the pages of our history and these are the songs of the Sephardin from six centuries back, of the ancestors who came from Spain. But they're too young - I don't go into the terrible scenes from our history. I'm there to teach them a song to perform usually at their little school concerts. It's a lot of fun. I usually teach holiday songs. Holiday songs are very popular.

NEA: In learning the instruments, was that also something that you did within your family and was pretty much done informally?

MS. JAGODA: The family usually played folk instruments, Bosnian folk instruments like tamburitza which is something like a mandolin. They played guitars and violins. The string instruments are mostly played and, naturally, the the tambourine for the rhythm. Every bride would receive a tambourine for the wedding.

NEA: Did learning those instruments come easily to you?

MS. JAGODA: It was all learned by ear. There was no reading music. Everybody had a gift for harmony - someone would sing the melody and another would just harmonize right away. They were very gifted.

NEA: You said your children also might perform with you.

MS. JAGODA: Yes they're doing a song with me. They have been performing with me for maybe thirty years. They grew up with these songs.

NEA: Do you think they will continue these and pass them on?

MS. JAGODA: Yes. Their children know these songs too. Now, I cannot say what's going to happen later, that I don't know. But right now it's still in the family. We practice at home and the kids are around the house.

NEA: Can you talk to me a little bit your performances that you've done, which performances you've enjoyed the most?

MS. JAGODA: One of the most emotional performances I've ever given was when I went back to Yugoslavia in 1984. I took my whole family and they performed with me in Sarajevo. The whole city came to hear the "American lady" - I had become an American citizen - and her children. Their generation was already a secular generation. There was no religion, there was no belonging to anything, no Judaism or Islam or anything. Later on it came back. When I went to give that concert it was a novelty for them. But that was a very emotional performance, coming back home to sing. After we left there were a couple of groups that got together. And I keep in touch with the one group that lives now in Paris. They had to leave Bosnia too because of the recent war. There's no end, you know, no end.

Another very emotional concert was when we were invited to Spain to sing. In Sephardic homes, like mine, as much as we remember the terrible things of the Inquisition, we still have a deep feeling for Spain. We love the language. We love the food. Everything. So here I am with an invitation to come to Ribedela in northern Spain to perform Ladino songs. After the concert there was a long line of women standing giving me kisses and hugs and asking for forgiveness for what their ancestors did to mine. I didn't know what to do with it. I just went to sing, you know. What happened, happened so many years ago. It's in the history books. It's not something we lived through.

NEA: Do you see your involvement in the music as a "career" or has it been more of hobby for you or a calling?

MS. JAGODA: Music has been plainly and simply part of my life. I taught music for many years when the children were small. I taught piano, accordion and guitar. I was a music teacher. I started singing when my mother was in a nursing home. She was a real war victim. She was very affected by the war. She had a golden voice, a beautiful voice, but if you asked her to sing, she'd say, "I can't. My harmony died." And that was the truth. They harmonized the way my family harmonizes today. They all died, she couldn't sing. So I started singing these songs after she died, so not to hurt her.

NEA: It would have been too painful for her.

MS. JAGODA: I couldn't do it to her. So we didn't sing these songs until she was gone.

NEA: It's great that you remembered all of them from your childhood and could now perform them.

MS. JAGODA: Well actually my first recording is The Songs of My Grandmother. The second recording is Memories of Sarajevo. These were the real Sarajevo folk songs, Ladino folk songs. And when I did the third recording I was a grandmother, a Nonna myself. So I wrote several songs for my grandchildren. It has an accordion and it has a very happy sound because there is happiness in seeing your grandchildren.

Now I'm planning my last recording. Well I won't say last, but let's face it - at seventy-eight I don't know how long I will be going on. The songs I'm doing for it are not coming out very happy. They're just sad sounds. It's all coming out in minor keys. But this is the way it is with composers - they are affected by their times. Times that they're living in and the memories they still carry. It will be songs about when I went back, what I found, what I didn't find. Songs about not being able to forget the war, the pain of war.

NEA: What are you looking forward to the most when you go to DC?

MS. JAGODA: I'm just very happy that I'm being recognized as a composer and a singer of this kind of music. At my age we don't have any big plans for the future of traveling the world. I've traveled. We've done concerts in Yugoslavia. I've done Poland and we have been in Spain. We have been in Austria, Canada. You know we've traveled. I've done lots of solo concerts.I feel that I have accomplished in life what I wanted to accomplish. I've met some wonderful people in my life, wonderful musicians, talented people that I shared music with and who made my life very full. This sort of made up for every inch of that mess that I had gone through before coming to America. This country has given me inner peace.

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