Return of ladino popularity

Yehoram Gaon leads the judges panel at Festiladino.

Over the past 15 or so years there has been a resurgence of interest in eastern cultures. At one time, the cultural hegemony in this country was almost entirely in the hands of the Ashkenazi Establishment, but things are different today. The third annual Festiladino, a ladino music competition which takes place at the Jerusalem Theater this Thursday, is further evidence of the growing popularity of non-western culture and, in particular, eastern music. "Yes, things have improved in recent years," concurs the guiding hand and spirit behind Festiladino Eli Matityahu. Matityahu cites the prestigious anchor ensemble for the contest, in support of his claim. "The first year, the singers were amateurs, last year we were part of the Israel festival and this year we have the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra to back the vocalists. We're upgrading all the time." According to Matityahu, interest in ladino culture, language and music is growing in leaps and bounds. "There are more and more musicians who perform ladino music, and there are plenty of youngsters who study the language," he says. "This has been going on for some time now." Why, then, did it take until two years ago to get Festiladino up and running? "I'm not sure. Maybe it was because there was no one with the energy and willing to do something about it. I believe that you can get things done if you are prepared to work at it. We work hard to put the event on. There are other cultures that don't have something like Festiladino. You've really got to put your money where your mouth is." This year there are more entries to the competition than ever before - 50 compared with 35 at the inaugural event. "The standard has also gone up," says Matityahu. "We have entries composed by Ashkenazim too. Ladino has across-the-board appeal today." With songs sent in by composers from Mexico, Egypt, Argentina, Spain and Israel, Matityahu's claim of incremental universal progress appears to be well founded. The local performing artists include Gila Hassid, Inbal Aharon and Boaz Pfeiffer but the Istanbul Stars children's choir from Turkey may very well corner the audience's interest. Presumably, then, the success of Festiladino represents some kind of coming of age for the genre, and acceptance into mainstream culture. "I don't subscribe to the idea that ladino, or any eastern culture, suffered discrimination," Matityahu declares. "I believe that if you get on with things you will eventually make it work." With Festiladino comfortably ensconced at the Jerusalem Theater, former President Yitzhak Navon in the father figure patron role and Yehoram Gaon leading the judges panel, things look good in the ladino world. Festiladino 2005 will take place in the Sherover Auditorium at the Jerusalem Theater on September 22 at 8:30 p.m.