When identity and language meet music: An interview with Mor Karbasi

An ancient poetic language, a candid voice, an accent close to a song itself, harboured with beautiful dark curls of Morenica women. It is the delightful singer, songwriter, and composer Mor Karbasi.

Singer Mor Karbasi
Photographer: Daniel Kaminski

She does not describe the music she creates as World music because she is not a fan of the term. She simply describes her genre as "what is beautiful, my goal is to add beauty to the world". With this, she sets the tone for this almost lyrical conversation about her fifth upcoming studio album and the current Ladino revival.

Ladino or Judeo-Spanish is an ancient language spoken by the Sephardi, the Jews of Spain during the 15th century. Jews from Spain were forced to flee under the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who imposed Christianity on the Jews.

As Karbasi explains, Sephardi people "had the choice to convert, to leave or to be killed if they stayed and most of them left."

Those who fled kept some words and grammar which over time merged with Hebrew and Spanish and thus became, Ladino. In music, the best description of this would be the song ‘Shecharhoret’ (Morenica) originally sung by Ofra Haza and covered by Mor Karbasi in her first album The Beauty and The Sea. A melody praising the beauty of girls with dark hair and a darker complexion, 'Morena' means brown/olive skin. The first part of this song is in Hebrew and the second part is in Ladino.

Mor Karbasi is very much in touch with her identity. One part of her family is Sephardi Jew, and her roots, therefore, lay in Spain, Morocco and Persia.

She explains why she believes Ladino is close to her heart: "When I was 18, I understood my family was Sephardic, my grandfather kept stating this. I always had a special connection with the Spanish language, without realising why. I self-taught Spanish. My grandfather kept saying that the blood does not forget. To me, it was things that old people say, but it was proven true."

This discovery was confirmed when she performed in Morocco, from which the maternal side of her family is from. She visited the synagogue where her great-grandfather lived. In this synagogue, he practised his belief until death and to Karbasi, this synagogue was not a coincidence as it was built in 1492, the year the Sephardi fled Spain and thus, she believed that blood truly remembers. This is when her mother gave her the idea to compose music first in Spanish, which she then translated to Ladino.

Her thirst for understanding her love of Spain, Spanish and Ladino did not stop there. Karbasi recounts her desire to understand this passion by moving to Spain.

"Later on I went to live in Spain to understand why and where my love from Spain came from. It was an immediate connection, like being home. People’s humour… Even if I could not understand everything they were saying, I felt understood by them more than I feel here in Israel, if that makes sense. I continued my research and stumbled across Flamenco, which lyrics are very similar to Ladino. The aspect of romance was kept in the flamenco, like in Ladino."

She also understood the Hebrew influence on old Spanish. "I found research on ancient Spain which trace back to Jewish roots, as Jews were the one who kept speaking the 15th century Spanish wherever they live," she says. "They lived in closed communities and even though they learnt to speak Spanish, they kept speaking Ladino amongst themselves to make sure that this language which was supposed to disappear would still be spoken."

Singer Mor Karbasi
Photographer: Rob O’Connor

Wondering where this language is spoken, Karbasi, who performed in many countries, says that it is mostly spoken in Turkey. Indeed, Ladino is used in the Turkish TV series The Club and this show is quite popular amongst the new generation of young Turks and could be the beginning of a Ladino revival.

"I think it depends if more people carry on creating things around the Ladino language and culture. The main thing is to create new materials to revive this ancient language.

"If you carry on singing the same things and don’t write anything new, I am not sure if it will be fully revived. But the main thing is to create. I know there are still many people in Turkey who still speak it but as a language to be used day by day, I am not sure if it will be fully revived but as a form of art, it could and probably already is."

She adds that being proud of one’s roots is truly what brings back lost cultures. Just as the Holocaust pushed Jews to forget where they came from and re-create themselves instead of digging in through the pain to bring back what was lost. This is understandable due to the weight of this human disaster.

With a long breath of reflection, Karbasi pauses and then says: "After this tragedy, people did not speak these languages to their children. They just spoke Hebrew to undo the painful past and almost abandoned their roots, unfortunately. However, musically, there is a revival because people are very interested in it. Also, it is a way of conserving history for some people. If it is to be revived it must not stay like a museum archive but must be used in an everyday context, like me, I sing to my children in Ladino, and so I am somewhat doing my share."

Upon listening to Karbasi, Ladino’s songs a hint of longing and melancholy, she explains the meaning behind this feeling.

"It comes from a few things, the history of the Jewish people, the sadness of a nation. As if it is impossible for this nation to be at peace wherever it is. When growing up, I saw terrible things happening to my people. My little girl sees such, and it’s becoming a natural reoccurrence that people want to kill her kind," she says. "This is one thing but also the general situation of humankind, I guess that is a part of it. You know, we are born, and we must die and so knowing this fact, we long for the pleasure of life."

Her music is a memorial consecrated to beautiful days in our lives - first love, marriage, the innocence of childhood and the longing we feel when all is passed or lost. This is a musical portrayal of our human condition, a catharsis of diverse human emotions, close to Fado, flamenco and at times, prayers.

Singer Mor Karbasi

There is almost a spiritual dimension to this longing, she explains: "I just feel like I feel feelings of many people, and there is always the longing for something that I used to have. Everybody is destined to long for something, to miss it.

"Missing a part of yourself, what you had, missing somebody, you can even feel this when you smell something. To me, it happens when I smell orange blossom. It reminds me of my four years in Spain."

It is in our human nature to long for things in our lives, this is possibly why ancient languages, like Ladino, are being revived, and why Karbasi sings it with such melancholy, her constant feeling of longing as she mentioned is described as an echo of her people’s history. An echo we, humans, should hang on to in any culture, to understand ourselves.

A language is an archive of our past, an identity which updates itself through the centuries, and people who feel strongly connected to Ladino and other ancient languages should take part in reviving it. Ladino, carries a lot of weight in its words and not only the weight of words but the weight of a strong past which needs to be passed on to the next generation to preserve an important chapter in Jewish history.