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Our Return and Renewal: Raphael Ortasse and The Kol Sepharadic Choir

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Romans Expelled Jews From Judea

I am certain that when the Romans expelled the Jews from their homeland, Judea, in 70AD the nation of Israel spoke one language and had one culture.

Roaming all over the world, not at their choice and option, while in exile for 2000 years, with no place to remain permanently, Jews have developed cultures that were influenced by the country where they lived for a time, as well as spoke ample languages and different dialects.

The Sephardic Jews

One such culture was of the Sephardic Jews, who descended from or mixed with the people of Spain and Portugal before their expulsion in 1492 CE. Jews in Spain and Portugal spoke Ladino and sang Ladino music. When we speak of Ladino-Sephardic music, we are essentially encompassing a fairly broad subject and decades of Jewish history and heritage that evolved away from the land of Israel. It is based on Judeo-Espanöl-Castilian-Spanish language, with inserted Hebrew words, mixed with the local language of the country where the Jews lived after the 1492 expulsion.

Reviving Hebrew

Since Israel became a sovereign country the ancient Hebrew language has been revived and a new Israeli culture has been evolving.

In the meantime, for instance, the Yiddish language that was spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe and the Jewish culture of that region has been fading away, and so is the Sephardic Jews' culture.

Efforts are being made to preserve and even revive some of these cultures that are about to be seen only in history books.

I wrote about the subject in my previous article: Reviving The Sephardic Culture and Ladino Music!

Kol Sephardic Choir
Caption: Kol Sephardic Choir - Standing from L-to-R: Margarita Kligerman-Soloists, Penina Solomon Meghnagi, Valentina Datskovskaya, Margaret Kapoor Tumer, Inna Royter-pianist, Moshe Ben-Yossef, Yacov Barness, Jeff Slottow, Avi Avliav-Music Director-Conductor, Raphael Ortasse-Director-Founder; sitting L-to-R: Joshua Ehrhart, Venus Kapuya Franko, Elizabeth Martinez, Suzie Shiaman-Soloists
Photo: Orly Halevy

However, I think I did not cover, fairly, all aspects of the fascinating Kol Sepharadic Choir, in Los Angeles, California. Its goal is to restore the Ladino-Sephardic music and some culture as well: www.kolsepharadicchoir.com

Raphael Ortasse, Choir Director

The Founder and the director of the Kol Sepharadic Choir is the multifaceted Raphael Ortasse who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, to parents of Sephardic origin, who were Zionists. When Raphael was at an early age, the family decided to immigrate to then Palestine, later to become the state of Israel. Raphael was fortunate to learn some of the Spanish-Ladino Romanceros from his parents, in particular from his mother. Every day when the young Raphael came home from school, he would hear, from a distance, his mother singing the Romanceros, while cooking for a family of nine.

These beautiful songs never left him, even when he was working as an aeronautical and space engineer. The first chance Raphael had to fulfill his dream he formed the Sephardic Choir with the objective of reviving this beautiful music among, first, the Sephardim Jews in Los Angeles and then introduce the music so dear to him to all Jews - Ashkenazi and Sephardic alike - around the world.

Avi Avliav, Conductor

But Mr. Ortasse is not alone in his effort to make his choir recognized worldwide. He gets help from his charming and most talented, 31 year old, music arranger and conductor, Avi Avliav (Avli) and outstanding choir members.

I attended one of the choir's rehearsals to satisfy my own curiosity and I had a chance to have a frank conversation with Avli and Margarita Kligerman, the lead singer.

NG: Please tell me about yourself.
Avli: I was born in Israel; my father is first generation Israeli from Bukhara, arrived to Israel in 1948. His family goes back eight generation in Spain. My mother is from a Holocaust surviving family. My parents met when my mother was a nurse and my father was her patient, injured when his jeep drove over a landmine in Israel's Independence War.

NG.: When did your musical talent surfaced?
Avli: When I was young we lived in a small apartment; my father bought my mom a keyboard and I was fascinated listening to the sound when she took lessons to learn to play it. One day, at the age of four, I simply set down and played, from beginning to end, as if I was trained, the song "I just want to say I love you".

That was the beginning of my musical road. I took piano lessons till I was thirteen year old and at the age of sixteen I started playing in gigs and bands, to include performing with Keren Hecht in large events.

Due to an accident injury, my military service was postponed which allowed me to attend the Rimon School for Jazz & Contemporary Music where, for five years, I majored in music arrangement, film music scoring, music production and engineering. During my first year, at the age 20, in collaboration with two other persons, we wrote the music for the movie '6 Million Pieces' (2001), for which I was nominated for an Israeli Oscar. (http://www.youtube.com/user/avliavi)

I grew up with American music culture that my father was especially fond of. He often hooked me to earphones and I would sit for hours swinging to the rhythm of the music. My dream was to travel to America and become a songwriter and record producer.

NG: Since you are in the USA, has your dream materialized?
Avli: I arrived to America at the age of 27; first year was tough until I made contact with my former teacher Sharon Farber (http://www.sharonfarber.com/), who was living in California.

Her help led me to be assigned as the conductor of LASHIR Choir, which I conducted for one and a half years till the choir was dismantled. And then Sharon told me about Raphael and his Kol Sephardic Choir. I did not know much about Ladino music. Back in Israel I knew Yasmin Levy (www.yasminlevy.net) who is well known worldwide as Ladino music ambassador. And not to omit, her father, Yitzchak Levy who went everywhere where there was a Sephardic community and collected Ladino music material which he recorded and published in five volumes named Chant Judéo-Espagnols. I came to a rehearsal of Kol Sephardic Choir, I saw and I fell in love with the entire choir concept and its meaning. I have been working with them for the past three years, developing new musical arrangements that will appeal to today's audience.

"Along with working with Kol Sephardic Choir," he adds, "I also have my own company that develops and promotes young artists."

NG: What does the future store for you and the choir?
Avli: We are looking to expand to forty member choir and thus we are recruiting singers. We will also use a band and go on performing tours.

Talking to Avli I can sense we are going to enjoy the Kol Sephardic Choir for the years to come and they will become well known.

From Avli I moved to talk to Margarita Kligerman (MAK), born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Invitation to the concert
Invitation to the concert

NG: How did you become a member of Kol Sephardic Choir?
MAK: My older sister was studying music. One day, at the age of five years old, I started to sing in front of her music teacher and she would not let me go. I took piano lessons for seven years and sang in the school choir. Though I graduated as a civil engineer, music was and is my passion. In 1993 I immigrated to the USA and transformed my profession to computer programming. When I met Raphael Ortasse I knew nothing about Ladino music but I fell in love with it.

Margarita is a soprano and many times is the soloist of the choir.

NG: Do you like being in the choir?
MAK: What question is that? I have been with the choir for eleven years. Doesn't that say something?

With Raphael's passion, Avli's musical talent and a singer like Margarita the challenge to bring the Ladino music to life for the next generation to enjoy it will not be an impossible task.

Kol Sephardic Choir was established in 1992, and on December 16, 2012, you are invited to witness its performance, to include Flamenco dancers, and thus become part of the Jewish Ladino culture rejuvenation. Enjoy.

Nurit Greenger sees Israel and the United States equally, as the last two forts of true democratic freedom and since 2006, has been writing about events in these two countries. Contact her by writing to nurit.4.nuritg@gmail.com Read more stories by Nurit Greenger.

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