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Cantor Ramon Tasat Delights American Audiences with Haunting Ladino Songs

Musicologist, cantor and entertainer Ramon Tasat, who grew up in an Argentine Sephardic family, nowadays introduces rapt American audiences to the haunting Ladino songs of his childhood. He talks about his many-faceted and multi-lingual musical journey in this edition of New American Voices.

[Melody of a traditional Ladino song]

Ladino music, a blend of Jewish and Spanish traditions, has been a part of the cultural life of Sephardic Jews since they were expelled from Spain in 1492. For 500 years, the songs kept their history alive from generation to generation. Ramon Tasat says he learned the music, and the traditions, at his grandmother's knee.

“You have to remember that when radio wasn't available and when TV wasn't available and what-have-you, the people actually chose to entertain themselves in different ways,” he says. “One of them was telling stories. And another one was singing them. And you'd be surprised that a lot of that happens through lullabies. So mothers would actually sing to their children the love stories, or the historical stories.”

Growing up in a large extended Sephardic Jewish family, Ramon Tasat says he was surrounded by music. As a child he studied musical theory and guitar, and in his teens became well known as a singer and guitarist. But he also pursued a classic music education around the world: in addition to his native Argentina he studied in Italy, Spain, Israel, and then moved to the United States and earned a Doctorate in Vocal Performance from the University of Texas at Austin. With this background, he now performs in Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, English, and -- of course -- Ladino. Mr. Tasat says American audiences, whether they understand the language are not, are remarkably receptive to his music.

“It's really extraordinary,” he says. “What I try to do is by explanations, whether [printed] in the program or also live, try to bring those stories close to them. Because what's interesting is that human beings have the same stories -- all of us, it doesn't matter where we come from. And that's one of the things that I try to do, to try to connect the history of the traditions of the people, and make them more universal.”

[Cantor Tasat sings an Italian Jewish song as he accompanies himself on guitar]

In addition to performing and teaching, Ramon Tasat serves as a cantor at a large synagogue near Washington, D.C. He conducts a choir of about 35 voices that performs Hebrew and Jewish music, but also songs in English and the works of new composers. He holds workshops and seminars. Mr. Tasat is also looking to the future, trying to record the voices some of the few remaining keepers of the Sephardic musical tradition in different countries.

“I feel that this is a contribution. To have this recorded would allow people to continue hearing and learn a lot of this music in the future to come,” he explains. “You want to think that you are the transmitter of that tradition in some way, that you put that little grain of sand for people to be able to actually connect and remember this, which would otherwise be gone with that generation of people.”

Indeed, Ramon Tasat feels that he has a unique contribution to make to that tradition, combining as he does the knowledge of a musicologist with the sensitivity of a performer, and the understanding of someone who grew up immersed in the music of his people.

Listen to this old Sephardic wedding love song, transmitted from one generation to another in the form of a Ladino lullabye, sung by an Argentinian-Jewish-American, Ramon Tasat.