june 2012
border crossings

sarah aroeste
Sarah Aroeste: ‘The music has crossed geographic boundaries and political ones, and the songs are often very celebratory of women--and very sexy.’

Mysterious Hybrid

Sarah Aroeste Unleashes Ladino’s Sensuous Feminist Power in Original Songs on Gracia

That’s right: Feminist rock in Ladino. The Judeo-Spanish language born in the Middle Ages is the perfect vehicle for articulating an utterly contemporary sensuality, defiance, wisdom, and love. It’s a living language, a lively tradition heard in a generation of new voices from New York to Jerusalem.

One voice leads them: American-born Ladino singer and songwriter Sarah Aroeste, who has spent a decade expanding the possibilities of contemporary Ladino song. The classically trained, pop-savvy vocalist channels generations of poets and wild women in a slow-burning, passionately produced original works on Gracia. Backed by flickers of flamenco and gorgeous pan-Mediterranean melodies, by lush strings and purring guitars, Aroeste’s airy, potent voice and intense engagement with her lyrics invigorate age-old wedding songs, hot love ballads, and tributes to history’s unsung heroines.

‘Gracia,’ an original Ladino song written by Sarah Aroeste and inspired by the 16th century Sephardic heroine, Dona Gracia Naci. This is the title track of the artist’s new album, Gracia

“It doesn’t matter that 99.99% of the world doesn’t understand Ladino,” Aroeste explains. “The themes are universal, the same themes people explore today: going off to war, unrequited love, crushes, death, family dynamics. The music has crossed geographic boundaries and political ones, and the songs are often very celebratory of women--and very sexy.

“Too often, Ladino singers sing without really understanding the lyrics,” Aroeste reflects. “They sing the music because of its undeniable value as a tradition we all want to preserve. But I think if more people took the time to really examine and dig into the lyrics, they might see a different, more complex and intellectual side of the music. That’s why our treatment of the songs on Gracia is extremely detailed, finely crafted, and layered: Each one really tells a complex story.”

In original songs, Aroeste tells the neglected story of Dona Gracia Naci, a 15th-century Spanish answer to Harriet Tubman, who boldly saved Jewish families from the Inquisition (“Gracia”), who epitomizes the strength and courage of our foremothers. “It’s a Ladino feminist anthem of sorts,” says Aroeste, whose poetic tribute to Gracia is framed by a stirring sample of Gloria Steinem.

‘Chika Morena,’ an original Ladino song about the ‘morena’-- the gypsy girl wandering the world in search of returning home. From the artist’s new album, Gracia.

Using a traditional ballad as a springboard for her own poetry, Aroeste reimagines the wanderings of her Sephardic ancestors—and her own journey to discover her roots—through the eyes of the traditional figure of the morena, the dark-eyed nomad girl, traveling for centuries and drained of her beauty by a harsh world in “Chika Morena.”

Aroeste has a true passion for telling these stories, for the wry wit, pithy idioms, and poetic force of Ladino lyrics. Her own tale winds through family history, lost and joyously found. Aroeste grew up in New Jersey, but understood early that there was something a bit different about her heritage. “I remember visiting my great uncles and grandparents in Florida when I was five or so,” Aroeste recalls. “I was sitting in the front seat of one of their cars and playing around with the preset radio buttons. They were all set to Spanish language stations. I didn’t understand it completely at the time, but I carried that with me, that we had a unique tradition.”

This tradition was part of a longer legacy, the culture of Spanish Jews (like the beautiful 11th-century poetry Aroeste brings to life in “El Leon Ferido”). Subsequently forced from Spain in the late 15th century, they scattered across Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Though their language, customs, and music retained an Iberian core, they continued to develop under the influence of the many tongues and cultures surrounding the tight-knit families and communities. The result is a strikingly rich, multifaceted world of words and sounds.

“Ladino itself is so beautiful. It’s a truly pan-Mediterranean language, a mysterious hybrid,” says Aroeste. “Based in pre-1492 Castilian Spanish, over the years it absorbed bits and pieces of languages from the different countries where Jews settled. My family ended up in Greece and today’s Macedonia. Our version of Ladino is Castilian Spanish mixed with Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish and Hebrew.”

‘El Leon Ferido’: an original Ladino song written and performed by Sarah Aroeste live in Tel Aviv, March 2012 and featured on the artist’s new album, Gracia. Inspired by a poem by 11th century poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, the song is about holding out hope when you think all is gone. As the chorus says: ‘Even if you feel like you're standing at death's door, just remember--the wounded lion still knows how to roar.’

Aroeste, after learning repertoire in Ladino while studying classical voice in Israel, soon found herself drawn to the language of her roots. She taught herself Ladino, researched Sephardic songs, learned everything she could. She hung out with Ladino poets in Israel. She watched klezmer take off, but was stunned to see few artists working with Sephardic traditions.

So Aroeste singlehandedly set out to change that, setting aside her opera ambitions and forging her own path. She picked up a dusty guitar and started crafting Ladino rock songs. The move was unexpected, but perfectly logical: Ladino songs have enough grit, humor, and open sensuality to match any rock hit. Girls fall for bad boys, follow their lusty hearts, argue with parents about their amours.

The story of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and settled around the Mediterranean goes largely untold and unsung. In this interview, Sara Aroeste gives us a glimpse into a world of heritage and traditions, tells us what turned her to Ladino songs, and re-lives memories from the golden age of Spanish Jews.

“There’s a certain sensuality that came with the music and rhythms I began to explore,” Aroeste notes. “A lot of the folk songs don’t shy away from sex and love. I always really admired that.” Songs like the unusually dark rendition of “Avre Este Abajour Bijou” burn with unabashed desire, a side brought out by Aroeste and collaborator/producer Shai Bachar’s voluptuous orchestration and sly arrangement.

Aroeste’s openness to her roots’ sexier sides raised some eyebrows initially, but the singer-songwriter worked for years to forge a new sound for ancient roots and has proven a bellwether for a new generation of Ladino creativity. She remains one of the very few artists who compose and sing their own works, “I feel the music in a different, very personal way,” she states, “and there’s so much beauty and irreverence and humor in this music. I want the world to hear it.”

‘It's well past time for Dona Gracia Nasi to take her rightful place in the canon of Jewish heroes.’ --Click here for Sarah Aroeste’s essay, ‘Reviving Dona Gracia Nasi’

Isreal’s YASMIN LEVY, who is also preserving and reviving Ladino music to great acclaim and is on her way to becoming an international world music star, was profiled in our March 2012 issue.

world music newswire
Courtesy World Music News Wire

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