In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!)
This is a special post for Women’s History Month, featuring an artist who exemplifies the importance of traditions passed from grandmothers to their granddaughters. She is a tradition bearer whose work has been crucial to her tradition and to the United States, and she has been recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor in the traditional arts. She is Flory Jagoda, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, teacher, and cultural activist who has kept the flame of her tradition alive in the face of real adversity.
Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to a Sephardic Jewish family, Flory learned songs from her grandmother, or “nona.” The songs had been passed down through nona’s Sephardic Jewish family, who were known as the “singing Altaračs.” Most of the songs are in the tongue called Ladino, derived from the late-medieval Spanish of the ancestors of Sephardic Jews, who were forced into exile from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century. But Flory also knows songs in Serbo-Croatian, Italian, and other languages.
In 1941, when Flory was seventeen, her father realized that Nazi and other forces posed a grave danger to Jewish residents of Yugoslavia. He gave Flory a forged train ticket with a non-Jewish name and her accordion, and placed her on a train. Flory says that she began playing the accordion as soon as the train left, and the conductor never asked her for her ticket! Later, she learned that forty-two of her family members were killed and buried in a mass grave, including her beloved nona.
While living in a relocation camp in Italy, she met U.S. army officer Harry Jagoda. They were married in 1946 and they moved to northern Virginia.
To honor her nona, Flory has made it her life’s mission to preserve the songs, music, and Ladino language of her Sephardic family. She has kept the songs alive not only as a singer, but as a teacher who has had many apprentices and many less formal students as well.
At the time of her National Heritage Fellowship in 2002, she told NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee:
These songs were passed down from generation to generation with no written music of any kind. These were the treasures of my family. These songs have Spanish roots, but the rhythms are Balkan. The rhythms were adopted from the countries where they settled. Many of these songs sound Turkish or Greek. My songs sound Bosnian. They’re folk songs about daily life — nursery rhymes, romantic songs, love songs, wedding songs, dance songs and holiday songs. I have three recordings, and my holiday songs are mostly based on my memories of my family. They were all, all forty-two of them, thrown into a mass grave during World War II. They took all the songs with them. I started writing songs just to remember the life in my little mountain village. My family vanished, and they live with me through these songs.
In addition to preserving many traditional folksongs, Flory has written many songs, some of which are now believed to be traditional by younger performers. In this way, Flory has not only preserved the traditions of her grandmothers, she has created those of her granddaughters as well.
We have had Flory here several times in the era of online videos, so there are more than two videos embedded in this post. In fact, there are three concerts and one oral history, featuring Flory with a wide range of musical companions.
The first concert was Flory Jagoda and Friends, a Homegrown Concert which featured Flory along with the members of Trio Sefardi: Susan Gaeta, Howard Bass, and Tina Chancey. It was a special program for Women’s History Month, and occurred on March 21, 2007. You can watch it in the player below, or find more information about it at this link.
The second concert, also a Women’s History Month program, was A Concert of Ladino Music: Flory Jagoda, which also featured Tiffani Ferrantelli and Zhenya Tochenaya. It was a program of the Hebraica section of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division. It occurred on March 27, 2012. You can watch it in the player below, or find more information about it at this link.
The third concert was Flory Jagoda: The Celebration Concert, a Homegrown Concert which featured Flory and a wide array of family and friends, and which occurred on September 21, 2013. You can watch it in the player below, or find more information about it at this link.
In the oral history, Howard Bass spoke with Flory Jagoda about her family and her life before, during, and after the Second World War and the influence these experiences had on her singing and songwriting. You can watch it in the player below, or find more information about it at this link.
The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.