Keeping the Ladino tradition close to the heart

Multifaceted Israeli artist Esti Keinan Ofri makes her debut at the Oud Festival with a program presenting a selection of her melodies.

Esti Kenan Ofri: Committed to continue. (photo credit: PAZIT DANK)
Esti Kenan Ofri: Committed to continue.
(photo credit: PAZIT DANK)
The 18th Jerusalem International Oud Festival takes place between November 2 to 9 at several venues, such as the Jerusalem Theater, Beit Shmuel and Confederation House.
It opens with debut performance of an ethno-jazz ensemble from Tbilisi at the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theater. Other programs feature ensembles from Israel and abroad: the Ara Dinkjian Trio (USA / Greece); Avner Gedassi and Chemi Rudner in a one-time Mediterranean rock-n-roll performance; Violet Salameh, Rakefet Amsalem and Yael Horowitz in a Women’s song program; the renowned sarod player Amjad Ali Khan (India); the Bertini Choir, performing together with Nizar Elkhater; Maria Jubran and more.
Multifaceted Israeli artist Esti Keinan Ofri makes her debut at the Oud Festival with a program presenting a selection of her melodies that highlight her unique familiarity with Judaeo-Spanish musical traditions.
Kenan Ofri, who nowadays is widely known as a composer, singer and authentic music researcher and passionate promoter, started her singing career rather late. She studied dance and choreography, both in Israel and in New York and was successfully creating in this field.
“Using my voice occasionally, I never thought that one day the Ladino tradition would be so close to my heart, becoming the essential part of my art,” says the artist in a phone interview on the eve of her premier performance at the festival.
“It all changed when composer Oded Zehavi asked me to perform several songs that he wrote. Only then did I realize that Ladino culture is a part of my background.”
This kick-started her career as a singer. Her voice and the traditions she represents have inspired composers such as Luciano Berio; Andre Hajdu; Betty Olivero; Noam Sherif; Oded Zehavi; Piris Eliyahu; Neta Aloni; Mark Kopitman,; Tzipi Fliesher and Israel Borochov into writing and arranging music to suit her particular vocal interpretation.
Born in Rome, Kenan Ofri was brought in Israel as a baby, yet she frequently returned to Italy, first when prominent Italian composer Lucian Berio composed a piece for her and later to perform both classical and traditional music.
After studying composition in the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, she traveled to New Your to study choreography.
“Although I had not spoken Hebrew for two years, it was always clear to me that I am coming back, because there are amazing cultural treasures in Israel that are totally missed elsewhere.
Of course I’m speaking about traditions – all traditions.”
Settling in Jerusalem, she taught dance and was also active on social level.
“I encouraged people to not to abandon their cultural tradition.
But while cultural variety is flourishing and supported in Jerusalem, this is not what happens in the rest of the country,” she admits, and fights for preserving traditions of country’s many ethnic groups.
Together with her fellow thinkers who are both performers and researchers, she inaugurated a center for preservation of cultural traditions, “and if it works well, the sky is the limit.
This organization gives roof for at least 10 different traditions and has a good chance of becoming an educational center, too.”
Kenan Ofri earned her first academic degree in Arabic music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and dance, and says that this education helped her to enter the world of Ladino music.
“My teacher, Salim Al Nour, one of the greatest Jewish composers of Iraq, was like a father for me,” she recollects.
“He was surprised that I was singing Ladino as a career, and not Arabic music, as he taught me. But there is a clear connection between the two. Ladino music is extremely variegated and influenced by many traditions, such as Balkan, Turkish and Moroccan. Ladino music is eclectic, yet based on a very precise foundation. As a musician, I am built on this tension.”
Turning Ladino into a part of her life, Kenan Ofri finds herself unable to explain what is about this music that attracts her so much.
“I used to think that dance is my language, that I express myself through movement, which comes from my soul just like composers express themselves through music. And yet now many people, mostly the elderly ones, are grateful to me for bringing back the songs which they never expected to hear live again.” She accentuates that hers is an authentic performance, “and this is what makes me feel committed to continue.”
Speaking about her activity as a composer, she says that she does not borrow the existing melodies, but is rather inspired by them. “For me, it is not the melodies that survived centuries that are the standards, but rather their naturalness. Musicians say that they are eager to play my pieces repeatedly because they flow naturally, leaving space for self-expression.
This music is not simple and it invites you to come back to it.”
Esti Kenan Ofri will appear at Confederation House, 12 Paul Emile Botta St. on Monday, November 6 at 7 p.m., with colleagues Yarden Erez, oud, violin, sax, vocals; Yaniv Meisel, oud, rebab afghani, saz, vocals; Zeev Yaniv, percussion; and guest artist Akram Tillawi, acting, composition, translation.
For more information, visit the Confederation House page on Facebook. For reservations: or *6226, (02) 623-7000.