by Nora Pehrson
We recently caught up with Virginia Folklife artists Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel over Zoom to talk about life as musicians during COVID-19, how they discovered Sephardic music (a diverse genre of Jewish folk music), and their mentor Flory Jagoda, who celebrates her 97th birthday later this month.
In 2003, Gaeta apprenticed with Jagoda through our Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship program before forming her own group, the widely renowned Trio Sefardi, which has performed at the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery of Art, and numerous folk festivals across the country. In 2017, Gaeta returned to the Virginia Folklife Program, taking on Sobel as her apprentice.
Jogoda’s beloved music has ensured the survival of the Ladino language and culture, earning her international recognition as “the keeper of the flame.” Jagoda stopped performing a few years ago, but her music is carried on by Gaeta and Sobel, whose current musical projects extend Flory’s legacy.
Nora: How did you originally discover Sephardic music?
Gina: I first heard about Sephardic music in college, when I saw a picture of Flory in my ethnomusicology textbook. I thought, “Sephardic music, how have I never heard of this before?” I had played a little Klezmer music at my synagogue growing up, but that was my only real connection to culturally Jewish music.
Susan: I also grew up attending synagogue. My grandfather was in a Klezmer band and in the Yiddish theater in Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up. Then I lived overseas in Buenos Aires, where I learned Spanish. I played a little bit of classical guitar, a little bit of jazz, some Argentine folk music.
When I came back, I met Lori Jagoda-Lowell, Flory’s daughter. I didn’t know much about Sephardic music, but it immediately resonated with me.
My whole introduction to Sephardic music was Flory’s music, which is in its own unique kind of niche. The interesting thing about Sephardic music is that, because the Jews were constantly moving, everywhere they settled, they would pick up different rhythms and melodies, and even words. They would take a song from that culture and put Ladino lyrics to it.
Gina: It has elements of what we think of as Spanish traditional music—the guitar being a centerpiece, the tambourine, the percussion, the almost flamenco style of playing. And then a lot of Flory’s music has influences from living in Bosnia, and also from growing up in the US in the 60s and 70s. There’s so much American folk and pop in her music. Amazing! Sometimes, I’ll listen to something and I’ll be like, “Oh, this sounds like Pete Seeger!”
I think one thing binding it together is that it’s folk music—it is telling stories, and it is accessible to the people in the community to share in.
Susan: Flory’s kids remember growing up with American folk music even more than with Sephardic music, because Flory didn’t share Sephardic music with them until after her own mother died. After the Holocaust, her mother was so devastated that she wouldn’t speak a word of Ladino for the rest of her life. Flory was in her forties when she finally, as her daughter says, “opened the treasure chest,” and started sharing the really incredible journey that she went through.
Nora: Your latest project, Minnush, reinterprets the songs you learned from Flory with electrical instruments and flute. Tell me about Minnush. How did the band form?
Gina: If you search “Sephardic music” on YouTube, you’ll find a lot of stuff that sounds very old-fashioned, almost a little inaccessible, in the sense that I think it would be hard for the average American listener to connect with it. Because the music comes from such an early period, it’s often reproduced very carefully, kind of like a living museum.
With Minnush, the idea was to take that same music and allow it to breathe within the folk tradition of absorbing our own musical stories. Susan and I have a jazz background, and I and our partners on the project, Trevor Pietsch and Kevin Johnson, have a funk background. Those influences are allowed to shine. We’re celebrating the music by using our own voices, not by being really delicate and tender with it. Minnush is living music.
Susan: The refugee and immigrant experience is another component to Minuush. When I worked with Flory, it was clear to me why I was doing the music—to teach and share the music, to preserve a culture that had been nearly destroyed.
Working with Gina in the Apprenticeship Program, I needed to ask her what resonates with her. What ended up resonating were the Jewish values of generosity and welcoming the stranger. Flory was an immigrant, a person who had to flee to save herself. She brought this amazing gift to our country and then had the chance to share it. It’s a more global way of thinking, of bringing out a universal human value that’s not just narrowly Jewish.
Nora: What has it been like during the pandemic as artists? What sorts of projects are you able to take on with most work, like live performances, being remote?
Susan: I’ve been doing more with Trio Sefardi, because we’re in the same quarantine pod. We stream concerts, and we’ve done some recording. But it’s a different world. It is so different to sing to a screen, to no one, to your imaginary audience! I have to have a sense of humor about it.
In the beginning of COVID, though, I kind of thought, “Well, okay! I’ve been wanting to do these projects at home, now I have all this time!” Actually, one project in particular is just about done. It’s called Sing Her Songs. I had digitized several VHS videos of Flory’s performances, from 1990 to 2005. It’s a chance to see her and hear her original sound as I heard it. Then I made ten videos of me teaching the songs with guitar chords, and lyrics, and sheet music. It’s called Sing Her Songs so that people can bring it to their community and share it—part of my mission as a Virginia Folklife Master Artist.
Gina’s a teacher; you’re doing some other things, right?
Gina: I teach a couple days a week remotely, and my studio has actually tripled since COVID. A lot of people want to take remote lessons now! I have adult students who are trying something new, and some former students picking it back up. I also do a lot of session work, which I was already doing remotely. I was actually just hired to sing harmonies on someone’s whole album—from this seat here, where I’m sitting right now! It’s a musician’s life, but all from my house.
Nora: Before we wrap up—you traveled to Cuba in 2019 with our Virginia Folklife program. What was that like?
Susan: We got in on religious visas, because we were playing Jewish music. There are only around 1,200 Jews in the whole country, so it’s very small. We would sometimes sing in a Jewish facility or home, but it was also to the greater community.
Above: Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel perform “Ocho Kandalikas” in Cuba.
Gina: We would get to every concert maybe an hour before the show, and someone would’ve hired Cuban musicians to play with us. They wouldn’t have any of the music, or if they did it was incorrect versions of it, so we would have an hour to soundcheck and teach the music, and it was amazing every time. Somehow it always worked out.
Susan: We were very welcomed. The music really opens the door to people in a very special way.
Join us for Flory Jagoda’s 97th birthday celebration on Dec. 21, 2020.
Learn more about Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel’s apprenticeship.