If Susana Behar looks familiar, chances are you might have seen her in the audience during previous Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto festivals. After all, she’s been attending them for the last eight years. That’s a long time to hold on to a dream, and finally Piccolo Spoleto attendees will be privy to the acclaimed vocalist’s exotic repertoire — the Sephardic music of her ancestors, Latin American folk, and a brief, passionate pit stop in flamenco — a set list that ultimately unfolds like a timeline of Behar’s incredible life.
Born in Cuba and based in Miami, Behar’s musical influences were familial; her father shared his love of Cuban music, while her grandparents and mother shared the Turkish Sephardic songs of their Jewish culture.
“Unfortunately I didn’t have my grandparents for too long,” Behar recalls, over the phone from her Miami home. “But I did have them for a bit as a young girl and I remember them speaking Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and my grandmother singing … Sometimes during Jewish holidays my mother and my aunt would sing the traditional songs.”
When Behar was still a child, the family opted to leave Cuba, but only Behar and her mother made it to Venezuela. Due to the Castro regime and its mandatory military service, Behar’s 15-year-old brother was forbidden from leaving the country. Her father stayed behind, thinking they would be reunited soon.
“We were separated for many years, almost 15 years,” Behar says. “My brother came out of the army already married and with a child and he decided to come to Miami. Then my mother and I followed. We were separated for many years already, and we would not continue being separated. It’s perfect, it’s been great. I love this place.”
The intervening years found Behar performing in choirs at a Jewish school, often as a soloist, then enrolling in a university specializing in sciences where she earned her masters in biology and in her downtime found a thriving music scene amongst the other academics.
“There were a lot of people that were very artsy,” Behar laughs. “There were great musicians going to the school at the same time as me, studying biology or chemistry, and were either singers, guitarists, or piano players, so I did a lot of music in my years of studies. We had a little plaza in the center of the school and we’d spend hours there just singing in between classes and exams.”
Venezuelan folk and Latin American traditional numbers took up the bulk of Behar’s focus, but upon graduation she found herself revisiting the Sephardic music of her roots.
“I find the music to be beautiful, and the Sephardic culture is very rich,” Behar says. “I found my niche. I continued doing Latin American, folk, and Cuban music, but I started working more, researching more and more the Sephardic music traditions.”
For much of the last six years, Behar has performed Sephardic music almost exclusively. The inclination toward embracing her ancestral music seems equal parts conscious choice and instinct, a desire to pay tribute to and preserve her family’s immigrant history.
“We have been a family of a lot of separation, unfortunately,” Behar says. “It’s a way to honor them. It’s a way to honor my grandparents who left Turkey and never saw their parents again. Never saw their families again after they immigrated, like so many people in the world … I feel it’s a labor of love to keep that culture alive. The only way I can contribute and keep the musical tradition and the language tradition alive, is by singing.”