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Sephardic Musician, 92, Keeps Tradition Alive

Dec 1, 2016

The documentary "Flory's Flame" gets its Connecticut premiere this Saturday at the University of Hartford.

The film explores the life of composer and performer Flory Jagoda, who is credited with preserving the traditional Sephardic music of the Balkans, an art form that was nearly wiped away by the Nazis during World War II.

Flory Jagoda grew up in a little village near Sarajevo called Vlasenica, surrounded by a loving, tight-knit family -- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were forced from their homes in Spain and Portugal by the Catholic Monarchy in the late 15th century.

As a child, Jagoda was taught the haunting Sephardic melodies of her ancestors, as well as Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews from her Nona, or grandmother. 

"She had the strength that was put to her by her Nona to continue the heritage that we brought from Spain," said Jagoda in the documentary "Flory's Flame."

Sephardic songs are passed down generation by generation by the women in the family, according to guitarist and singer Susan Gaeta.

Back in the early 2000s, the West Hartford native became Jagoda's first protege. She has spent more than a decade learning from and performing with Flory Jagoda.

"There is a story that when the Jews were exiled from Spain, and the people were walking -- literally walking out of Spain -- the Rabbis asked the women to sing and play their tambourines," Gaeta said.

Flory was just 14 years old when she, like her Sephardi ancestors, became a refugee. With the Nazi army encroaching on her village, her father put her on a train to the Dalmation coast.

Flory removed the yellow Star of David from her clothing, and was given a fake name and a counterfeit train ticket. She left with the clothes on her back and her little student accordion.

"She says that accordion saved her life," said Susan Gaeta. "She played and sang Croatian songs for the people on the train, and nobody asked for her forged ticket." 

Flory Jagoda and her student-model Hohner accordion.
Credit Facebook

Flory's journey took her across the Adriatic Sea and to Italy, where she met and fell in love with an American soldier. She married Henry Jagoda and relocated to Virginia, along with her mother and father.

Tragically, her extended family -- 42 in all, including her beloved Nona -- were murdered by Nazi sympathizers in Vlasenica.

By the end of the war, the population of Sephardic Jews in the Balkans was nearly wiped out, and with it their unique culture. The pain of the Holocaust caused Flory Jagoda to set aside music and the memories of her childhood for decades.

But in her 40s, she embarked on a mission to resurrect the Sephardic music of the Balkans, and to celebrate the lives of the people she lost in the Holocaust through her own compositions.

"She has a lovely song called 'Laz Tiyas' which is about all of her aunts, and it's her history -- it's her own personal story," said Susan Gaeta. "She brings a lot of life to it with her memories. I just feel there is a lot of passion in her voice when she sings."

"There is something about a song," said Jagoda. "My Nona would say: If you can't put your soul and feeling into your song, don't bother singing."

Flory Jagoda turns 93 this month, and is still performing and composing.

In 2002, she was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts for her efforts in passing on the tradition of Ladino music to a new generation of musicians, including Susan Gaeta.

The documentary "Flory's Flame" and a performance by members of Trio Sefardi, including Gaeta, will be presented at the University of Hartford's Wilde Auditorium Saturday night beginning at 7:00 pm.