For over a decade and a half, singer, composer and cultural activist Sarah Aroeste has been honing her one-of-a-kind sound, combining traditional and original Ladino music while fusing elements of bhangra, rap, merengue, cabaret and country among others.
Incorporating the centuries-old Sephardic dialect of Ladino, which includes elements of Portuguese, French, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic and more, Aroeste’s contemporary sound continues to introduce modern audiences to the fading medieval language and Judeo-Spanish culture she holds so close to her heart.
Eponymous Review was lucky enough to chat with the American born and classically trained Aroeste, during which she shared some of her influences, inspirations, Sephardic traditions and, most excitingly, some of her new music.
Read our full Q&A interview with Aroeste below and be sure to give a listen to her playfully catchy new Tu B’Shvat song, “Thank You for the Trees,” premiering exclusively here on Eponymous Review. The track will appear on Aroeste’s forthcoming all-original bilingual Ladino / English Holiday album (the first of its kind!) Together/Endjuntos, which debuts Sept. 19 (pre-order on Amazon and iTunes).
Sarah Aroeste: I knew when I set out to write a holiday album that I wanted the songs to be joyous and uplifting just as holiday celebrations are meant to be. And I wanted the album to show how global and universal Ladino is… especially because it’s foreign to so many. So I wanted to write songs that had diverse rhythms and flavors from merengue to French electro, cabaret to bhangra, fiddle folk and more. I think it’s precisely the collection of eclectic sounds, which is how I view Ladino as a language, that truly contributes the joyous energy of the album.
LF: Your music incorporates a wide variety of genre techniques and cultural elements. Can you share a bit about why you love to write and sing in Ladino and why you want to share it with the world?
SA: Ladino is like a hidden treasure — people are so often amazed when they discover it. I grew up with this tradition, and as a young girl, was so sad that none of my friends had ever heard of it. So I made it my mission to find a way to make the music more accessible to a wider audience. As a language, Ladino incorporates many different languages throughout the Mediterranean. It crosses so many geographic boundaries and can appeal to so many people. If only they knew about it!
Ladino, and Sephardic tradition, represents such an important part of world history, and it’s just tragic to me that it is in danger of falling into obscurity. I don’t want my own family heritage to die out with it, but more than that, I truly believe that Ladino has the ability to bring so many people into its fold because of its diverse cultural reach. I feel compelled to share it as widely as possible before it disappears.
LF: Another interesting element to your songwriting is the way you infuse your Sephardic roots. What draws you to Grecian and Macedonian sounds?
SA: More than the sounds, I’m inspired by the historical memory and the symbolism of Sephardic culture. For example, many years ago I fell in love with a figure from 15th century Portugal — a woman named Dona Gracia Naci, who saved thousands of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. I wrote a song to say thank you to her for everything she did to keep Sephardic culture alive. I’ve also always been fascinated by medieval poetry and had a poem stuck in my head for years by an 11th century Judeo-Spanish poet, Samuel ha-Nagid. I wanted to write a song incorporating some of his poetry in a contemporary setting. And I’ve tried to find ways to weave some of my own family stories into my songwriting. I grew up hearing my grandfather speak about his family in Greece and Macedonia and those images were imprinted in my head. Those memories get translated into the sounds and flavors I use in my music. It’s like I can’t help it — those same images are what guide my pen when I sit down to write.
LF: Can you tell me a little bit about the other musicians on the album and what it was like working with them?
SA: This is the third record I’ve done with my current producer, Shai Bachar. We’ve collaborated for six years now and he’s the one I trust most to help translate my musical vision into reality. He also hails from a Sephardic background (from Morocco) and shares my sensitivity for the cultural import. At the same time, he has a vast knowledge of musical genres and understands my global, contemporary vision. We have a group of international musicians that we love working with, many of whom are in Israel. I love working with Israeli musicians because I feel they understand, in their bones, the musical tension between tradition and modernity.
LF: Your music is so happy, it is no surprise to me that you took time out to write the children’s album, Ora de Despertar. Is it more difficult to write for children?
SA: In many ways it was easier. I had direct inspiration by observing my own children. I wrote the album when my first daughter was a newborn, and I was in search of Ladino resources for kids that I could share with her. There really weren’t any. And I recorded the album while pregnant with my second daughter. The maternal need to transmit myself, and my culture, to my children was paramount at the time. It felt almost desperate. I knew I had to leave a lasting legacy for my children before Ladino was lost. The title, Ora de Despertar, means “Time to Wake Up.” It’s a sweet song for children about morning rituals but, for adults, it has a more profound meaning. We have to wake up and teach our children before our traditions fade.
The album came so naturally to me — every song is inspired directly from an experience as a new mother. I incorporated the exact rhythm of my daughter toddling with her first steps, the awe in her eyes when she first touched grass with her bare feet, the frustrating but adorable attempts to stave off going to bed and more. I had to simplify my songwriting slightly to make the songs easy for kids to follow but the process of writing came so naturally as I was truly writing while in the moment.
LF: What made you want to adapt “Ora de Despertar” into a book?
SA: I wanted to adapt the song into a book because I wanted to have something tangible that children could hold. And I also wanted to make it bilingual, which the recorded song is not. In my continued attempt to reach wider audiences, I’ve recently incorporated English into my work so that it is actually an entry-point for people to have access to the Ladino. It’s just another tool to have the book when I work with a younger demographic. It adds a visual component to the music that they can walk away with.
LF: Will you be touring in support of Together/Endjuntos and where can people see you perform live?
SA: I’m currently touring with all my projects — books and music — and I keep those appearances updated on my website. People can expect from my shows an interactive experience with music, storytelling and a strong dose of humor too. I want people to know that Ladino is not a dead, ancient culture but rather part of a lively, joyous tradition that is still very much relevant today.