Singer finds her Jewish spirit in Sephardic soul music

Although singer and songwriter Stefani Valadez works in many styles — jazz, blues, folk and more — her heart is in the melodies of the Sephardic culture.

“Whether I’m singing in Spanish or Ladino or Turkish or English, it’s all coming from the soul,” she says.


Stefani Valadez

Born of Italian and Jewish parents, Valadez, who lives in Venice, Calif., discovered that some of her ancestors were Sephardic. Her paternal grandmother’s family were Turkish Jews, and her maternal grandmother was from a small pocket of Sephardic Jews in Poland. The discovery of her Sephardic roots was partly responsible for her interest in the culture’s music.

Valadez will perform at 2:30 p.m. on the Jessica Saal stage at the To Life! festival.

Valadez was introduced to Sephardic music after a friend heard her singing something that reminded him of the Sephardic sound and loaned her an album. She immediately embraced its passion.

“It opened up a whole new world to me,” she says. “It was like I knew the music. It was so divine and soulful. It’s the minor keys and the bittersweet, the beauty of human suffering in the music — the angst in the Jewish and Spanish heart. When your heart breaks, it breaks you open. It’s a common experience: the passion, the joy ands the ups and downs.”

Her interest in Sephardic music was further enhanced by a yearlong trip to Spain. “When people heard that I sing in Ladino, they showered me with compilations from all over the world of other Sephardic artists,” she says. “It gave me a great palate to choose from — I picked different songs and then created my own arrangements based on some of those traditional Sephardic songs.”

As a third-generation musician, performing comes naturally to Valadez — whether it’s singing or playing the guitar, percussion and dulcimer. In addition to Sephardic music, her musical interests were formed by early experiences of the New York coffee house scene in the ‘60s, as well as some lessons by an icon of the folk music movement.

“I was lucky enough as a young child to go to a camp that Pete Seeger used to visit after dinner,” she remembers. “He lived up the road, and he’d walk over after dinner and lead group sings. He was very influential among the kids, and it gave me a great appreciation of the folk poet and harmonies.”

For Valadez, whose “very liberal” parents didn’t attend a synagogue, performing Jewish music has helped her rediscover her religious roots.

“Performing this music connects me to more Jewish people because I find myself being invited to perform at Jewish venues. This music is not a popular genre among the mainstream, so I do a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs, because they want a Sephardic touch,” she says.

Valadez’s repertoire ranges from Sephardic melodies to folk and world music, the latter being where much of her effort is recently. Her performing schedule keeps her busy, averaging two performances a week. At the To Life! Festival, she’ll perform with her world music ensemble, with whom she performs at various venues, as well as performing as a solo artist.

With so many diverse influences, Valadez is currently deciding what direction her next recording will take.

“I’m working on a recording of some of the Sephardic songs I’m doing with the ensemble that weren’t recorded on my last Sephardic album,” she says. “It’ll have a lot more instrumentals and more Middle-Eastern flair.”

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