Expat communities are some of the most interesting to encounter because they often live as though in a perpetual sway between the old and the new. Take the hot-blooded Moroccans of oft-frigid Montreal or the rich Japanese culture of Brazil. Communities that are seemingly incompatible with their surroundings frequently emerge as a blend so fresh that they take on a whole new persona. So too is the musical experience that is neo-Sephardic indie rock band Deleon’s third LP, Tremor Fantasma. The title itself, a sort of Spanglish term for the ghostly echoes or quakes of yesteryear, sets the stage for the journey that follows. At once haunting and comforting, the record does a good job of reminding us that the old can be new again and though it may frighten us, it also brings us back to a simpler time.
From the very first blend of electro beats and Appalachian banjo in Ya Ribon, it becomes quite clear that Ladino, the quasi-extinct language of the Sephardic community, is more of a recurring theme than an anchor. The beats are neither cliché nor dated and blend effortlessly with the rich harmonies. But it is the following song, Bre Sarika that brings the listener into the contrived world that Deleon has imagined, what can only be described as a melting pot of the world’s Sephardic communities on vacation in modern-day Mexico City. It is quintessential mariachi in the best sense of the word. Imagine listening to Calexico and not being able to shake the feeling that your ancestors were Turkish village folk who celebrated their weddings in the streets. La Muerte Chiquita continues on the same path, breaking it down to the basics. By this point, language becomes an afterthought.
The ghostly ancestors alluded to in the title are vaguely recognizable but are as Middle Eastern as they are Andalusian. Hamavdil brings the most distinctly Jewish flavour to an album that better succeeds at bringing to light the amorphous nature of exotic Jewish communities. At first listen, the lack of overt “Jewishness” is confusing but makes perfect sense once the overarching themes sink in. As such, Hamavdil is an easy one to skip over the third time around. However, as familiar as the melody to Los Biblicos can be, Deleon’s take is so unique that it quickly becomes a standout track on an otherwise flowing record. The uncharacteristically jolly Buena Semana follows it, making it difficult to remain in the mood that the rest of the album so successfully imparts on the listener.
The worry dissipates once the raw and bluesy Lamma Bada, an easy favourite, puts you right back where you want to be. The only welcome departure from that flow is the delightful Ansi Dize La Novia, equal parts Brazilian roots-funk and Amadou & Mariam influenced Afro-rock. The farewell that is ushered in by the hauntingly beautiful A la Nana, a mariachi waltz love song for a dying language, would have made an ideal bookend for the emotions evoked throughout the record. However, Deleon chose to close this memorial tribute of sorts with a hip-hop tinged dance track, not wholly incompatible with the Jewish notion of life and death. Somewhere out there, Ladino, Yiddish and the other languages and flavours of the past must be dancing the nights away, unswayed by the oceans and differences that often divide us.
Jonathan Moyal is a self-proclaimed music addict who spends his days as Director of Development at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts and nights as father of a two year old son who he hopes will become the next John Lennon. You can read more about these hopes and delusions on his blog http://thesoundtrackofurlife.blogspot.ca/