Flory Jagoda, champion of Sephardic music, passes away at 97

Flory Jagoda, the Bosnian-American composer and interpreter of Ladino songs, passed away on January 29, 2021. She was 97.

She is known for her interpretation of Ladino and sevdalinka (Bosnian folk music) songs. In 2002, Flory Jagoda received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honour given to artists in the United States.

Flory Jagoda  was born in 1923 in Sarajevo, then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Her family had lived in Sarajevo and neighboring town Vlasenica for centuries. Her family was one of many Sephardic Jewish families forced to flee Spain and Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries. They were able to take very little with them, but preserved their oral culture, language and songs. Sarajevo was known as “chico Jerusalem” (Little Jerusalem).

Flory grew up in Sarajevo, but when her mother Rosa remarried a Croatian Jew, they moved the family to Zagreb. Flory wasn’t very fond of her stepfather, but when he gave her an accordion, a “harmonica” as she calls it, everything changed. Growing up, all she did was play her white Hohner harmonica.

When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia and Croatia became a Nazi puppet state, the family fled the city overnight, with false papers, to Split. Flory often says the harmonica saved her life. She played it on the train ride so no German officers would ask for her papers.

From Split, Flory’s family and their Jewish neighbours had to flee to the island of Korcula to evade the Germans. The group took a small fisherman’s boat to cross the Adriatic sea to Bari, Italy. Flory, then a young woman, didn’t part from her white Hohner harmonica. In Bari she met the handsome U.S. Air Force officer Harry Jagoda. They married, and at the end of the war, moved to the United States.

Once in the U.S., Flory was desperate to feel “American”. She says Americans knew very little about Sephardic culture when she arrived in the U.S. but, since then, they have learned more about it. Devoted to the preservation of her heritage, she has performed throughout the U.S. and abroad as a soloist and with her family and friends. Her repertoire includes Ladino, Italian, Serbo-Croatian folk songs and her own compositions.

Sarajevo’s culture was always close to her heart, and Flory spoke Serbo-Croatian with her parents. When they died in the 1970s, Flory started really discovering her roots. She researched the depths of Sephardic tradition, and she traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina where she hadn’t been since the start of World War II. She visited the mass grave of her 42 murdered family members in Vlasenica, and dedicated an album to it, Arvoliko: The Little Tree, released in 2006, which was her final solo recording.

Jagoda’s also recorded, Kantikas Di Mi Nona (Songs of My Grandmother) consisting of songs her grandmother taught her as a young girl. Following the release of her second recording, Memories of Sarajevo, she recorded La Nona Kanta (The Grandmother Sings), songs she herself wrote for her grandchildren. She also released a series of duets with Ramón Tasat, Kantikas de amor i vida: Sephardic Duets.

Lori Lowell, Flory’s youngest daughter, describes her mother is “the most adorable person in the world.” “Even though she’s in a memory care unit and can’t sing anymore, music is what drives her. When we visit her, music is constantly being played. As long as there is music, she can connect with those around her.”

During the 1990s, all Flory could think about were the horrors happening in Yugoslavia. She organized many concerts to raise money for synagogues in the Balkans.

Her older daughter Betty recalls her mother saying, “You have to forgive, and we need to build bridges.” Flory believed the dire living conditions in the Balkans were caused by people stubbornly holding on to centuries-old grudges.

Despite Jagoda’s own experience of hardship, she urged others “to continue living your life.”

May her memory be a blessing.


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