Home International Premiere: Lily Henley – Avre Tu Puerta Serrada

Premiere: Lily Henley – Avre Tu Puerta Serrada

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On May 6th, Ladino singer, songwriter, and fiddler Lily Henley releases Oras Dezaoradas. The album features a collection of beautiful old ballads of Sephardic Jewish women across the centuries. Expelled from Spain on penalty of death by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, Sephardic Jews kept their culture alive as they moved throughout North Africa and the Ottoman empire. These songs were adapted to the current times, the current sounds of where they had moved along the forced diaspora.

As you can hear on Avre Tu Puerta Serrada below, Henley’s take, while contemporary, has a mass of personal influences at play, including those from American folk traditions, a reminder of how music moves and develops amongst communities over time and connects us all today. It’s hard to believe when you hear Henley sing in the Ladino language that this threatened tongue that fuses old Spanish with Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish elements, is spoken by less than 100,000 people today.

Just as women constantly adapted these songs to the current times, Henley does the same, leaving her marker in a line of tradition that she is now a part of. As it says in the album press, the result is a beautiful testament to the heart of women in song, channelling old voices, of course, and reminding us that these voices felt the same things that people today feel. The women in Sephardic songs display a powerful independence, and the songs are full of discussions between lovers, young daughters seeking advice from mothers, complaints about daily life, and grief from young women left widowed by war.

Of this song, she says: This is a song I adapted from two Sefardi songs with related lyrics and storylines. It is less of a ballad story and more of a fragmented, possessive love poem. From the perspective of a lover who says, at the end of the song, “Your beauty is only for me, only I can appreciate it”. I wrote the tune and song melodies feeling like the lyrics needed a wilder, more chaotic backdrop to express my interpretation of them, and that something about the fragmented poetry reminded me of bits of old time song tunes.

It opens with Henley’s violin taking centre stage, ably backed by Duncan Wickel’s guitar, who also contributes cello. Along with some beautiful interplay with violin, a third through Wickel brings some beautiful flat-picking to the fore. The results are vibrant and uplifting, but the pace picks up still further for the final lap, on which we hear Henley singing for the first time. Her voice and the Ladino language are both striking and poetic to the ear.

When I first heard this album, this track spoke to me, and, for me, that’s also part of the ingenuity behind Henley’s approach. She’s authentically responding to a traditional form, which makes this album so unique.

Talking about her approach to this album, Henley explains, “There are so few young musicians in this song tradition, and, to me, doing an album of the old melodies, re-recording what people have already recorded, didn’t make me excited. This feels inspiring because I’m creating music that feels really authentic and original to me and I’m adding to this tradition that is very endangered.”

Henley’s approach is inspiring, refreshing and enduring.

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