Ladino’s young flame

Mor Kar­basi chooses to sing in a dy­ing tongue — but her per­for­mance is pow­er­fully life-af­firm­ing, says Lawrence Joffe

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS 51 -

IT WAS a chilly night at North Finch­ley’s arts­de­pot last Sun­day, but more than a few rays of Mediter­ranean sun shone through when singer Mor Kar­basi took the stage. Al­ter­nat­ing her dress from som­bre black to bridal white, dark ten­drils of hair tum­bling down, Kar­basi proved more than a chanteuse: she re­lived the her­itage she was evok­ing, acted out poignant lyrics with un­af­fected pas­sion, and re­vealed a nice touch of self-dep­re­ca­tion when the god of mics was clearly not smil­ing.

Mostly Kar­basi sang in Ladino, that uniquely Jewish con­coc­tion of me­dieval Castil­lian with He­brew, Ara­bic, Turk­ish and French. Some­how she breathed new life into an old lan­guage which em­bod­ies the highs and lows of Sephardi Jewish his­tory, from the hey­day of me­dieval Spain and ex­pul­sion of 1492 to the wan­der­ings through North Africa, Ot­toman Turkey and on to Am­s­ter­dam, Lon­don and Jerusalem.

Kar­basi first heard Ladino five years ago — she is still only 21 — yet com­poses most of her mu­sic in the tongue. Clearly, Ladino strikes a deep chord with her. Born in Is­rael to a mother with Moroc­can Sephardi roots and a fa­ther o f P e r s i a n Jewish ex­trac­tion, with a pen­chant for Queen and Led Zep­pelin, Mor took to mu­sic like a duck to wa­ter. Clas­si­cally trained on pi­ano, for two years she sang pro­fes­sion­ally for a lo­cal fla­menco ensem­ble, all the while lis­ten­ing to Moroc­can piyut­tim sang by her mother.

Kar­basi has re­sisted the temp­ta­tion of di­vadom de­spite be­ing blessed with strik­ingly sen­sual looks. She ac­knowl­edges in­flu­ences which show in hints of play­ful Ye­menite in­to­na­tions à la Ofra Haza, or the jazz sen­si­bil­ity of Achi­noam Nini. What she writes, she says, blends the cul­tures, colours and sounds of “ev­ery­thing I in­haled” in Is­rael. Mostly, though, the melodies and words are her own.

The songs have a time­less feel, yet use an an­cient tem­plate and re-fash­ion them in a new guise. Whether gen­tle, rous­ing or cheeky — as in the old favourite, Pun­cha Pun­cha ( The Rose That Pricks) — the melodies are in­fused with Span­ish gusto, syn­co­pated Ara­bic rhythms and Jewish sto­ry­telling pat­terns.

Songs speak of ev­ery­day love and loss, jokes and lies, com­plaints, gen­tle­ness and gos­sip, dreams and hopes, the holy and the play­fully pro­fane. Her de­but album, The Beauty and the Sea, re­leased this month on the Min­taka Mu­sic la­bel, fea­tures en­tic­ing lay­ers of strings, Ara­bic oud and Mid­dle East­ern mo­tifs. Mor’s own com­po­si­tion, Fuego ( Fire), closed with a fab­u­lous In­dian flute solo by a guest artist while sound­ing thor­oughly at one with our 21st cen­tury.

By con­trast, the tra­di­tional Man­sevo del Dor sug­gested an ex­act replica of a 500-year-old me­dieval mar­ket­place ditty, com­plete with its ul­u­lat­ing cho­rus.

Through­out the con­cert — part of arts­de­pot’s Olam Mu­sica se­ries show­cas­ing the best in Jewish mu­sic — Kar­basi was as­sisted by her tal­ented multi­na­tional ensem­ble: elec­tric vi­o­lin­ist Pas­cal Roggen; Uruguayan An­dres Ti­cino on a mis­cel­lany of bells, boxes, drums and cym­bals; and Kar­basi’s part­ner, Joe Tay­lor, on elec­tric and acous­tic gui­tar. In a dif­fer­ent in­car­na­tion, Tay­lor heads the English indie band, Black­bud.

The Kar­basi band has only been play­ing pub­licly since last year, when they ap­peared at the Wo­mad world-mu­sic fes­ti­val. Their telepa­thy and abil­ity to shift moods sounded ef­fort­less. And while the odd segue into pro­gres­sive rock might need some fine-tun­ing, over­all their lyri­cism and mu­si­cal econ­omy made for a rich lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Kar­basi’s sweet and widerang­ing voice pro­vided a per­fect coun­ter­foil to some tal­ented solo­ing.

She also draws on per­sonal mem­o­ries. In trib­ute to her grand­fa­ther, she wrote the charm­ing En La Kaye de mi Chikez ( In The Street Of My Child­hood). Mor does not of­ten sing in He­brew, but when she does — as in Shecharhoret, about a port­side girl tanned by the sun, or Be’enaim tso­hakot ( Laugh­ing Eyes) — she sounds jaunty and life-af­firm­ing, redo­lent of clas­sic Es­ther Ofakim.

Kar­basi’s voice is some­times charm­ing and girl­ish, some­times sur­pris­ingly loud and au­thor­i­ta­tive, yet never coy or over­bear­ing. Ethe­real songs about feath­ers, doves and roses abound, yet the emo­tions de­scribed are uni­ver­sal. One touch­ingly de­scribes a mother speak­ing to her daugh­ter be­fore her wed­ding night. So it comes as no sur­prise that Kar­basi’s own mother, Shoshana, wrote lyrics for sev­eral songs.

Kar­basi boldly chose to end the con­cert with Ju­dia, a song she com­posed af­ter visit­ing Auschwitz. She wrote it as a trib­ute to the in­no­cents mur­dered by Nazism, and as a re­minder that so many Ladino-speak­ing Sephardi Jews from Salonika, Rhodes, Bul­garia and else­where per­ished in the Holo­caust.

Yet the haunt­ing whis­pered re­frain, which be­gan like an ethe­real cry, altered dur­ing the course of the song al­most into a voice of hope — a rare ma­tu­rity over a dif­fi­cult sub­ject by some­one only 21 years old.

Kar­basi is cur­rently tour­ing Bri­tain, so catch her if you can.


Is­raeli-born singer Mor Kar­basi is no diva, de­spite her strik­ingly sen­sual looks

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