Like all projects, this one was as much about process as anything else. With this in mind, we wanted to share these provisionally concluding thoughts on our collaboration. —Laura & Ira
In the midst of the pandemic, I took refuge with my husband at his parents’ house in New Hampshire. Like so many, I found myself completely isolated and longing for home—though I wasn’t sure exactly which home I was longing for. New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, or Marrakesh?
During this time, for reasons both personal and creative, I began delving into the rich archive of Sephardi music—from traditional to contemporary, sacred to secular—and when I reached out to Ira, this project started to come into focus.
Ira is a formidable collaborator with years of experience as a folk music practitioner and cultural organizer. And Ira’s family, like mine, had been shaped by the vagaries of history: Ira’s grandparents were refugees who came to the US from Eastern Europe during and after World War II, who also experienced layers of erasure while integrating into Western culture. Our mutual sense of loss, displacement, and longing, paired with our belief that music can summon the past and rewrite the future, yielded Ya Ghorbati.
During our long backyard listening sessions and rehearsals often conducted in ten-degree weather, we agreed that we wanted to create a new paradigm for how Sephardi music is played, surfacing the role of women and trans folks in an often cis-male-dominated tradition. The more we listened, the more we gravitated towards the divas: feminist trailblazers finding joy, freedom, and power in a sometimes hostile cultural landscape.
Finally, Ira arranged a selection of songs and we started playing and singing in the backyard. Some neighbors enjoyed the free concerts. Some cursed the fate that left them stuck working at home next door to a musician. Either way, when New York reopened, my block was primed to join our concert across the street, where the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music was hosting a day of outdoor celebrations.
Where did the old world go? What was it like? How did the ruptures of history come to affect us, collectively and individually? Who were we then? And who am I now?
I have been pursuing these questions in my work as a performer and teacher of Yiddish music and theater for the last ten years. In my formal Jewish education, I learned much more about the Holocaust than about the centuries of Jewish culture in Europe that preceded it. As an artist, I was able to pursue a different kind of education. Poring over archival recordings and ethnographic collections, as well as seeking out the living threads that had survived the rupture, I was looking for mesoyre, a chain of living connection and teaching. And at the same time, I was looking for a recuperable past. On the stage and in the classroom, I hunted for a connection between the queer worlds I wanted to operate in and the historical art traditions that fascinated me—traditions in which gender worked very differently.
As Laura and I began to work on Ya Ghorbati, I was particularly interested in how the Arab-Jewish divas we were studying had played with their own experience and expression of gender. While preparing our own interpretations of these divas’ songs, we tried to creatively reconstruct a relationship to identity and history that was expansive and intersectional.
The more we worked together, the more it also became clear that there were many obstacles in this work, barriers relating to patriarchy, assimilation, and colonial history. It was important to me to support Laura in finding a way to transcend these obstacles, serve her community, and bring the fullness of her ancestral culture to life.
In Laura’s backyard garden, huddled around a propane heater in icy winter weather, we started by creating stripped-down arrangements of each song: just a reverb-drenched synthesizer, Laura’s voice, and the wind in the plants. Eventually we added “traditional” instruments—guitar, violin, and oud. These instruments were masterfully played at the concert featured in this folio by Eylem Basaldi and Yoni Battat, alongside the lavish drum and bass of the exceptional April Centrone and Zoë Guigeno. But the synthesizer remains heavy in the final mix; the result, to me, is a music that is both rooted in the past as well as in this precise moment.
Laura Elkeslassy is a singer, actor, and educator based in Brooklyn. Born in France, with Moroccan and Israeli roots, Laura blends Judeo-Arab, Middle Eastern, and Andalusian repertoires in her music. Her current work focuses on reclaiming Moroccan Jewish liturgical traditions and North African musical heritage from a feminist standpoint.
She has performed music at countless venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, El Museo del Barrio, the World Music Institute, and elsewhere. Laura is also the Executive Director of L’Atelier Théâtre in New York, and as an actor, she has appeared at the Venice Film Festival, La MaMa, and beyond.
Laura is a multiple-time recipient of Brooklyn Arts Council grants and Rise Up Fellowships. She is also a 2021 New Jewish Culture Fellow and a 2022 Rising Leader Fellow with the Open Society Foundation. Learn more about Laura’s work here.
Ira Khonen Temple is a bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, and embedded cultural organizer. Recent credits include accordionist for the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, as well as music director of Indecent at the Weston Playhouse, Great Small Works’ Muntergang and Other Cheerful Downfalls, and the Aftselakhis Spectacle Committee’s Purimshpil. Ira is a founder of the radical-traditional Yiddish music group Tsibele. Learn more about Ira’s work here.
Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile
Concert at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, June 2021
Music Direction | Ira Khonen Temple
Executive Production | Laura Elkeslassy & Ira Khonen Temple
Laura Elkeslassy | Vocals
Ira Khonen Temple | Keys & Accordion
April Centrone | Percussion
Eylem Basaldi | Violin
Yoni Battat | Oud & Guitar
Zoë Guigueno | Bass
Live Sound & Recording | Sam Palubniak, JC Studios
Concert Documentary Director | Hannah Roodman
Concert Documentary Editor | Vincent Cota
Music Consultants | Yohai Cohen & Hay Corcos
Marketing Consultant | Fern Diaz
Lyrics Transliteration & Translation | Adil Abara, Yohai Cohen, Ira Khonen Temple, Laura Elkeslassy, Mehdya Fassi, Youssef Fassi Fihri, Asaf Calderon, Joseph Elkeslassy, Juda Oliel & Mady and Raymond Lassy
This show was made possible by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council; Rise Up; and the New Jewish Culture Fellowship.
Special thanks to Torrey Townsend, Paola Mieli, Maelle Lassy, Natalie Haziza, Osnat Bensoussan, Deborah Sitbon Neuberg, Noemie Serfaty, Jonas Sibony, Laurent Charbit, Ella Bourreau, Smadar Oliel, Youval Levi, Dr. Samuel Torjman Thomas, Claudia Horowitz, Matt Green, Maia Ipp, Miranda Knutson, the JFREJ Sephardi/Mizrahi Caucus, the Mizrahi Collective, and the New York Andalus Ensemble.
Ayin Folio Credits:
Authors | Laura Elkeslassy & Ira Khonen Temple
Editors | Tom Haviv, Kristin Nelson, Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, Eden Pearlstein & Joanna Steinhardt
Design & Production | Tom Haviv, Carly Lewis & Sam Fine