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Lydia Samuels - Voices That Wander Interview

This July will mark the world premiere of Voices That Wander, a moving choral project of traditional songs in Ladino – the UNESCO endangered language of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who fled Spain during the Middle Ages. This special performance will bring to life this beautiful language that spread to other parts of the world. The performance will feature Songs We Carry, a collaborative project between Palestinian composer Saied Silbak and British Jewish composer Ana Silvera that celebrates the interconnectedness of Arabic and Jewish music.

Ladino originated in Spain and was carried to Israel, North Africa, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans throughout the Middle Ages by Jews who were expelled or fled persecution. This fascinating historic language has long been used in music and is being spotlighted in this joyful evening of music and language. Jewish composer Lydia Samuels has brought together traditional Ladino songs with four new compositions she has written, following extensive research. Performing these pieces are The Wing-It Singers, led by Sally Davies, and soloists including Ashkenazi Jewish, Sephardi Jewish and non-Jewish singers.

Silback and Silvera will perform pieces from their project Songs We Carry, and an arrangement of the Arabic song Lamma Bada Yatathanna with The Wing-It Singers Choir. Silback and Silvera’s work unites Jewish and Arabic songs, celebrating the similarities that tie these regions of the world together in music. With similarities between Mizrahi and Sephardic music and Arabic music, the shared roots of Sephardic and Arabic diasporas can be clearly heard.

The four new songs by Samuels incorporate four traditional life cycle songs: a love song, two wedding songs, and a lullaby. As part of creating Voices That Wander, Samuels and Silback went to two London primary schools for Year 3 and 4 children, introducing them to Ladino, the culture of Mizrahi Jews and the expulsion from Spain, and linking that with present day displacement. Together the workshop facilitators and the Year 3 and 4 children wrote songs inspired by their thoughts on these themes. A medley of these songs will be performed by Samuels, the children, soloists and The Wing-It Singers Choir.

This touching and important project, which highlights the significance of connection and shared roots, is coming to Round Chapel in Clapton this July, and will return to London on 1st October 2024 at JW3.

We chatted to Lydia Samuels to learn more.

Where did your arts career begin?
I started out singing and playing in the British folk band ‘The Melodic’ (ANTI records). We toured throughout the US, Canada and Europe playing our own brand of eclectic folk that fused British folk revival with Latin American Andean music and other influences. So I started out as a folk musician and came to composing a little later in my career. Simultaneously to playing in bands I have worked in communities, leading music and singing sessions. I have always enjoyed the magic that can be created in community arts. 

Were there any people or performances that inspired you to follow this career path?
I had grown up listening to my mum’s 60s records, a lot of Joan Baez and Bert Jansch. This is what first drew my attention to folk and traditional music, which remaincentral part of my practise as a composer. About 10 years ago I came across a record make by the great singer Frankie Armstrong, in which she sings traditional songs from the British Isles in this incredibly raw way. I was very inspired by this in my own vocal practise and was lucky to be trained by Frankie many years later in the art of group singing facilitation. 

What can you tell me about Voices That Wander?
Voices That Wander is a choral project funded by Arts Council England which explores traditional music in the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the language spoken by Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain throughout the Middle Ages. It has been spoken throughout the diaspora for hundreds of years. For Voices That Wander I have created choral compositions that incorporate elements of traditional Ladino songs, which have been brought to life by the incredible Wing-It Singers Choir and 4 wonderful soloists, Ana Silvera, Rosalie Warner, Miriam Gould and Dave Ridley. The pieces will be performed for the first time on July 7th along with several brand new arrangements of Ladino songs created by the choir’s leader, Sally Davies. 

Where did you get the inspiration for the piece?
In recent years I have been studying the beautiful canon of traditional Ladino folk songs from the Mizrahi and Sephardi diaspora. As a Jewish composer this music is close to my heart, although it doesn’t come from my heritage - I am Ashkenazi, with my family’s roots in Eastern Europe. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I didn’t have much exposure to Sephardi music growing up and I only discovered the amazing music of the Sephardi diaspora as an adult. I’ve found it to be a shame that there is less visibility of Sephardi music within the Ashkenazi community, and this was part of my motivation in creating this project; I wanted to bring Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews together along with non-Jews in a celebration and exploration of Sephardi music. 

How have you approached using the language of Ladino for the show?
In my research I discovered a wealth of traditional songs in Ladino, mainly through the Jewish Music Research Centre which has a collection of archived songs from Morocco, Bulgaria, Turkey amongst other countries, sung by native speakers of Ladino. The archives are fully public and can be accessed through spotify. Using these archival recordings I was able to emulate the correct pronunciation and I spoke to Ladino speakers and scholars to help with translation.

How important was it to use this language which is endangered?
On discovering that Ladino is at risk of dying out I felt compelled to create music sung in the language; it feels very important that people keep singing in Ladino - there are so few Ladino speakers that it is officially a UNESCO endangered language. This discovery was the starting point for creating the choral compositions in Voices That Wander. 

In January 2024 I was awarded funding by Arts Council England to develop these compositions and from there the project began. Luckily there are scholars throughout the world, including in the UK at the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages, preserving these traditions. But I think music is a wonderful way to keep this language alive. 

How did the collaboration with Songs We Carry come about and how has that driven the project forwards?
One of the aspects which interests me about Mizrahi and Sephardi music is its similarity to Arabic music. The shared roots of the Sephardi and Arabic diasporas can be heard clearly in the music, and this is something I am keen to celebrate in the concert on July 7th. This is why I invited Siaed Silbak the palestinian oud master/composer and Ana Silvera the british Jewish composer + singer as guest artists to perform songs from their project Songs We Carry. Together they interweave the musical traditions from their heritages. Saied and Ana have also teamed up with the choir to perform an arrangement of the Arabic song ‘Lamma Bada Yatathanna’. 

What has been the biggest challenge in staging the piece?
For me, the biggest challenge was getting funding to stage this project. I was delighted to have been awarded Arts Council England funding but it certainly wasn’t my first attempt at trying to source funding for this project. Arts funding in this country is in dire shape at the moment and you have to be so persistent and driven to get any funding at all. I hope that I will be awarded more funding so that we can develop this project further and do more performances around the country.

You’ve also worked with Year 3 and 4 students in creating songs, how important were those workshops?
These workshops were designed to introduce children aged 7-9 to the language of Ladino and the culture of Mizrahi Jews. In the workshops the children learnt about the Jews’ expulsion from Spain 500 years ago, andlinked this with present day displacements of different groups and also with stories of their own families. We then wrote songs together inspired by their thoughts. The workshops were a very creative way to share some of this history with the children and I was so impressed with the empathy and imagination they showed in their songwriting, it was inspiring for me as a musician to work with them in this way. 

What keeps you inspired?
Something that happened at rehearsal the other day encapsulates what keeps me inspired. One of the members of the choir grew up in Argentina with her grandmother who was a Ladino speaking Jewish refugee. This choir member came up to me at the end of rehearsal and told me that singing the Ladino songs has been a wonderful way for her to connect with her grandmother, who died when she was a child. She said that the sound of her grandmother speaking Ladino has come back to her and she has been dreaming of her grandmother all the time since we started the rehearsal process. I found that story to be so inspiring. Music and language carry so much, and it is so powerful what we can unlock through singing these ancient songs. 

What do you hope someone takes away from seeing Voices That Wander?
I want people to walk away with new knowledge of Ladino music and the connections between Sephardi Jewish and Arabic music. But most importantly I want them to be touched by the timeless human stories and emotions within these songs about love, birth, death and community. 

Voices That Wander plays at Clapton Round Chapel on Sunday 7th July 2024. Tickets are available from

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