Women played a vital role in maintaining, and probably originating, much of the Sephardic song repertoire. Flory Jagoda, from whom Trio Sefardi (and many other Sephardic groups and soloists) learned several songs, exemplifies what once was common: women singing the old songs and adding new ones to the repertoire. Flory was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1923, and lived there in her early years. Her mother’s family lived in Vlaseniça, a mountain village in the heart of Bosnia. As a child Flory spent a great deal of time there with her large, extended family. The once-vibrant Jewish community in this region still exists in some physical forms such as old synagogues, cemeteries, and the occasional commemorative plaque, but Jews of Sephardic origin are but a shadow of their pre-war communities.
With the onset of World War II, the Jewish family life and culture that had survived for centuries in the villages and cities of the Balkans was shattered forever. The Nazis and their local allies deported or slaughtered the Jews; Flory and her parents were among the few who managed to escape. They made their way from Zagreb to Split (both in the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia), and then to Korčula, an island in the Adriatic then under Italian control.
The Italians resisted sending Jews to concentration camps, and Flory and her family spent two and a half years interned on Korčula. In the chaotic final months of the war, when the Italians were no longer able to protect the several hundred Jews on the island, Flory and her parents escaped once more, this time to an area of the Italian coast that was occupied by the American Army. Shortly thereafter, Flory met Harry Jagoda, an American staff sergeant from Youngstown, Ohio. They married in Italy and later settled in Falls Church, Virginia, where they raised four children.
Flory Jagoda learned many of her songs from her nona (Ladino for grandmother) in Vlaseniça. Her songs reflect daily life and concerns, customs, and holidays, and they are always sung in Ladino, which was known to her as djidiyo (literally, Jewish or Jew). Her manner of performing these songs comes from what she learned as a child, when tango rhythms were popular throughout Europe. Flory’s arrangement of “Madre mia si mi muero” is typical. Harmony singing was common, and all sorts of instruments, including the accordion and guitar, were used for accompaniment. She has recorded four albums of her songs and written a book that includes autobiographical notes and many of her songs (see Resources).
Flory Jagoda continues to teach and inspire a new generation of musicians, and to add to the repertoire with songs that celebrate life, family, and the memory of Jewish life in the former Yugoslavia. Often called the Keeper of the Flame of Sephardic culture, Flory continues to perform throughout the United States and Europe.
TRIO SEFARDI & FLORY
Our singer, Susan Gaeta, became Flory’s apprentice in 1992 through the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Master Apprentice program. Guitarist and lutenist Howard Bass completed an informal apprenticeship of his own to become a member of Flory’s touring ensemble, and Tina Chancey became a frequent guest on viola da gamba and fiddle. For a quarter century we’ve worked together, and now our group Trio Sefardi is ready to help her legacy thrive and grow, “to continue.”