Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel

Susan Gaeta (seated), former apprentice to Flory Jagoda in the tradition of Sephardic ballad singing, has become a master herself and is mentoring singer and songwriter Gina Sobel. Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities. #nosale

When Flory Jagoda fled from the Nazis in Yugoslavia, she escaped with her precious accordion — and her Bosnian Jewish cultural heritage.

At a time when landmarks, belongings and entire families were disappearing in the chaos of war, Jagoda kept her grandmother’s songs alive, singing them in her Ladino language. Her dream was to make sure generations yet to be born who’d never met her beloved Nona could hear her songs in her native language and be blessed.

On a March cultural diplomacy trip to synagogues and venues across Cuba through the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, Jagoda’s musical apprentice, Susan Gaeta, and her own apprentice, Gina Sobel, performed “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukkah song Jagoda wrote.

“It has become a Hanukkah song around the world,” said Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities. “And the audiences in Cuba sang it with them.”

On Thursday evening, listeners attending “La Nona Kanta: The Remarkable Life of Flory Jagoda” at Vinegar Hill Theatre can learn more about Jagoda’s dedication not just to preserving Sephardic Jewish music, but also to passing along the traditions to other musicians. Music stays vibrant when it is performed and loved, so the songs Jagoda loves aren’t merely artifacts.

Jagoda has served as a master artist in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program twice, and now a second generation is reaching for the torch. Gaeta, Jagoda’s original apprentice in the program’s inaugural class in 2002, has trained an apprentice of her own — Gina Sobel, a flutist known for her jazz and rock work with Choose Your Own Adventure and other projects.

Thursday’s multimedia program includes musical performances by Gaeta’s ensemble Trio Sefardi, which includes Gaeta on vocals and guitar, Tina Chancey on bowed strings and Howard Bass on guitar and lute. All three have performed extensively with Jagoda over the years.

In addition to the music, there will be family photographs and interview footage from “Flory’s Flame,” a film that shares Jagoda’s story of her escape from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia at her father’s insistence with only a fake train ticket, a Gentile alias and her accordion.

“It’s multimedia, so it’s live music and film footage of Flory telling her story,” Lohman said.

After marrying a U.S. Army officer in Italy after the war, she moved with him to the United States and devoted herself to preserving her grandmother’s music and language. In 2002, her efforts were recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor for a traditional artist.

Jagoda, now 95, no longer performs in public, but her most recent birthday celebration was filled with music, Lohman said. “She was enjoying herself, and it just turned into a big musical thing where people just sat around her and sang her songs and the folk songs,” Lohman said.

Gaeta has honored Jagoda’s mentorship by forming Trio Sefardi. Her own apprentice, Sobel, has continued the tradition by establishing an ensemble of her own — named Minnush, after one of Jagoda’s songs.

Minnush will perform what the ensemble calls “living Sephardic music” at 7 p.m. June 23 at The Front Porch. Gaeta, Sobel, Trevor Pietsch and Kevin Johnson will play traditional Sephardic songs while bringing in their own influences, which include jazz and American folk.

“It’s taking Sephardic music and adding new influences for a younger audience,” Lohman said. “That is Flory’s dream. This is the quintessential apprenticeship success story.”

Beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages will be sold, but no food. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 at the door and $12 in advance. Get all the details at frontporchcville.org/event/minnush/.

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Jane Dunlap Sathe is the features editor for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7249 or jsathe@dailyprogress.com

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