An Entirely Too Brief Overview of Ladino Song

The story of these tales themselves is perhaps one of the most fascinating of all. Though history never really has a beginning, you could say that a diving-in point here is the end of an era:  The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1491 and from Portugal in 1497. This uprooting began migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern African and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond.  In each adopted home, languages, food, customs, stories, songs and musicality mingled and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved.

The language itself is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Variously called Ladino, Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Hekatia, Saphardi or simply Spanish, the language is more like a number of closely related sub-streams, today grouped under the umbrella term Judeo-Spanish.  To some extent, each community integrated words and expressions from the local language, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. Wherever it is found, Judeo-Spanish is also a type of linguistic time capsule: The Spanish Jews preserved the lexis, syntax, morphology and phonology of Medieval Spanish as well as idioms, pronunciation and accent of words which have long since vanished from Spain itself. Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel, though it is considered an endangered language.

Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom: Ladino Songs Renewed springboards off of songs mainly from the communities of Sarajevo and Salonica. The traditional source music is primarily from the early twentieth century, though the lyrics of a few of these songs are much older, even pre-dating 1492.  While these older songs may well have been sung for hundreds of years, there is little evidence left to indicate the melodies and ornamentations used back then. The melodies that we know today are much more recent.


There are three main types of Ladino song:

  • Romanzas: These are many of the epic/historical stories, tales of kings and queens, intrigue, daring escapes and, often, treachery. Romanzas have a fixed structure similar to the French Ballade: Each line has 16 syllables, divided to two 8-syllable parts with an assonant rhyme scheme.  Some romanzas have 12 syllables per line, divided into two groups of six. The romanza is a narrative in which the order of verses is important.

  • Cantigas: These songs often deal with love, longing and disappointment. Unlike the romanzas there is often not a single, progressive, plot to the song and the form and verse order can vary from one version to another. Cantigas can be songs of courting, mourning, even drinking. They can be tied in with life events like weddings and other communal occasions.

  • Coplas: These songs are associated with values and beliefs. Coplas can revolve around important community figures, economic hardship, specific holidays or moral themes. The lyrics to coplas tend to be more modern (17th-19th  century).


This show focuses on romanzas and cantigas.

Sign up for our Newsletter