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Bosnian Musicians Keep Sephardic Jews' Dwindling Language Alive


Vocal ensemble Corona performs during the 22nd Jazz Fest in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nov. 4, 2018.

Sephardic Jews in Bosnia have kept their language alive ever since they were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century and found a home in Sarajevo, but today it is spoken by only a handful of the city's aging Jews.

Yet Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is becoming an inspiration to musicians from across Bosnia's ethnic divide.

"Ladino as a language is dying out even in predominantly Jewish communities, but it is our obligation here to maintain our shared heritage and preserve it at least in our music," said Tijana Vignjevic, a music teacher and leader of the Corona vocal ensemble.

The Corona, whose seven members come from Bosnia's different ethnic groups, combines storytelling with a cappella singing and a touch of modernity in its repertoire. It was among the four performing the Sephardic songs repertoire at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival this weekend.

Atilla Aksoj and Jelena Milusic of Barimatango perform during the 22nd Jazz Fest in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nov. 4, 2018.
Atilla Aksoj and Jelena Milusic of Barimatango perform during the 22nd Jazz Fest in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nov. 4, 2018.

The Jewish community has played a significant role in Sarajevo's cultural and economic life for more than 400 years.

Expelled after the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, Jews found sanctuary in the town, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

"Sarajevo was the last bastion of Ladino and Sephardic culture," the Jewish historian Eli Tauber said.

At the height of its influence, Sarajevo had eight synagogues, serving some 12,000 Jews. But most of them were killed during World War II, when the city was occupied by Nazi Germany. Fewer than 1,250 remained.

The Jewish community recovered somewhat in the post-war era.

Then it was dealt another blow with Yugoslavia's bloody collapse and the subsequent siege of Sarajevo.

Before the 1992-95 war, the city was a multiethnic melting pot — mosques, churches and synagogues standing virtually side by side. Afterward, it become predominantly Muslim.

Tauber said that only two Sarajevo Jews out of the 500-member community can today speak Ladino fluently. A dozen can understand it or would know some Ladino romances and proverbs.

But musicians are doing their part in preserving the dwindling language, with the Sarajevo Music Academy raising at least several students in each generation dedicated to researching Ladino music, Tauber said.

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