Sarah Aroeste was a trained, Ivy League-educated opera singer. For most of her life, opera had been everything. Until the day came when she realized, with undeniable clarity, that opera was not her calling. And not only that: she realized that her calling was, instead, an ancient musical tradition with very little mainstream presence.
It was a dark time, she says, in spite of the fact that she knew she’d found what she was meant to do.
But she’d long since felt the pull of her Ladino roots, embedded in her Sephardic ancestry. (A bit of background: Sephardic, or Sephardi, Jews define themselves in terms of the Jewish customs and traditions originating in the Iberian Peninsula. Ladino is one of the names of the language once spoken by Sephardic Jews. A Romance language, its origins lie in Medieval Castilian Spanish, but it was heavily influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and other languages.)
Spain began expelling its Jews in 1492, and many families, including Aroeste’s, ended up settling in the Ottoman Empire.
“My family has the typical immigrant story,” she says. “My grandfather came to the United States during the Balkan Wars. Assimilation was big with his generation; they wanted to forget what they were escaping from. A lot of the traditions weren’t passed on.”
So while the family enjoyed Sephardic foods and some Ladino songs at their gatherings, there was no one Sarah could ask about family history and tradition. As time went on, she fell in love with Ladino music, independently of her family. During a summer program at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Nico Castel, one of the world’s leading experts on Ladino, introduced her to a huge amount of Ladino music. Sarah ended up studying with him at the Met, and her time with him culminated in a series of recitals, each one of which contained a section of Ladino songs.
“Every single time,” she says, “audience members would say that was the part they loved the most.”
At some point, it all clicked. She realized that Ladino music was her true calling, and she knew it was time to make a change.
“Opera was all I had known. But I dusted off an old guitar I had lying around from high school and searched online for a guitar teacher. I found one inside of 15 minutes, and started taking lessons.”
“He was a real rock and roll player and we just clicked,” she says. “And then we realized that we had the same Ladino background. It seemed like fate! We started playing these Ladino songs, but not the way of our grandparents. It was in a way that really resonated with my contemporary life. They were a new interpretation of background and identity- Ladino folks songs with a modern lens. So I took a huge leap of faith. Giving up a dream of opera to start a Ladino rock band? You just don’t do that!”
Indeed, “you just don’t do that” was a refrain she began to hear from some members of the Sephardic community.
“Because I was coming at this cultural perspective from a different point of view,” she says, “I got a lot of backlash at first. It was hard for me to prove to them that I wasn’t adulterating the music just for the sake of being modern. Especially in thebeginning, I was very careful not to push boundaries too far. At the time—2001—there were very few people playing Ladino music, especially with a rock approach.”
Then, too, there was the simple fact that Aroeste is, in a surprise twist, female.
“Many traditional religions won’t listen to a woman singing. It took me by surprise, especially as I come from the world of opera. I got a call from a group in LA one day. They said, ‘We love your music, we want to book you, can someone else sing the music?’”
Even when people did want to listen, she was criticized for being too sexy.
“It was ungrounded,” she says. “So much of the music in the Ladino tradition is graphic, [but] so adoring of women’s bodies. I was singing music that already existed. Think about the Mediterranean, where so much of this music came from: it’s hot in both senses of the word. And given that so much of Sephardic culture was female-based, I was taken aback by all of this criticism. Many of the songs are simple stories, based around the home.”
Fast-forward a few years, of course, and now it’s easier to find female-led Sephardic groups.
“There’s real acceptance now,” Aroeste says.
Her latest album, Gracia, is a tribute to Gracia Nasi Mendes, one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of Renaissance Europe.
“Her story is so amazing. Forget that she was Jewish, a conversa, a woman – during the Renaissance she became one of the richest people in Europe. She lent money to the church, she acquired the largest naval fleet in Europe, and then acquired safe passage for hundreds of Jews to escape the Inquisition,” she says.
(In what is perhaps a loaded bit of commentary, the title track on the album features an excerpt from a speech given by Gloria Steinem in 1971.)
Aroeste is one of few singers across the globe who actually writes her own songs in the Ladino language today.
“One of the things I care most about is respecting the tradition, giving value to the lyrics,” she says. “Don’t just sing the music out of rote historical memory! There’s such a fear that Ladino culture is dead. But we can’t preserve a culture by living backwards. We need to be creating new art in the culture to move it forward. Ladino is a treasure trove of ideas and beauty. It’s meant to be on a wider world stage.”
For more of Sarah Aroeste, visit www.saraharoeste.com.
Emma is a cheerfully obsessive writer, editor and creative gun-for-hire. She’s had a hand in all types of media, at every step in the process. Jack Move is her fifth from-scratch magazine. (Clearly, this has become A Thing.) She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter (@ealvarezgibson) and find out more atwww.emmaalvarezgibson.com.