Aroeste rocks Sefardic tradition in new CD

by Daniel Santacruz


Sarah Aroeste considers her newest album, Gracia (Spanish for “grace”), her most ambitious project to date as she wrote six of the 12 songs on the album. 

“Very few performers compose their own songs in Ladino today,” she said in a telephone interview from New York City, where she lives. Gracia is very important for me because I want to be considered a composer of Ladino, and not only a performer of Ladino music.”

On the album, which came out in May, she also rearranged traditional melodies like La vida do por el raki (I’d Give my Life for Raki) and La Comida La Mañana (The Morning Meal). Aroeste describes the songs on Gracia as “a mix of feminist, raw, experimental, rock-beat, energetic, empowering, electronic, retro-chic, Mediterranean-infused and fine-crafted, detailed sounds.”

Her previous two albums, A la Una (2003) and Puertas (2007), contain traditional romanzas, most of them rearranged by Aroeste.

Gracia has a strong Israeli presence. One of the songs, Tu Portret, with music by Aroeste, is set to a poem by Jerusalem resident Matilde Koen Serano, one of the foremost compilators of Ladino folktales in the world.

A 16-piece string orchestra from Tel Aviv is featured on the album, which was produced by Jerusalem-born and New York resident and composer Shai Bachar. 

Gracia pays homage to Doña Gracia Mendes of the House of Nasi, a marrano a businesswoman and patroness born in Portugal in the 1500s. She helped marranos flee the Portuguese Inquisition and set up a yeshiva in Tiberias. She is believed to have died in Israel in 1569.

Aroeste wrote the leading track on the album, also titled Gracia, which is “my official feminist Ladino anthem,“ she said.

“It's a travesty that more people don't know about her. I hope my album will do a small part to get more people to recognize what a remarkable person she was,” she added.

Aroeste shot a promotional video at the Inbal Theater in Tel Aviv at the end of March for Gracia, which features a four-piece string quartet from that city. After the shoot she met with potential distributors for the album in Israel.

The performer had two choices at the beginning of her musical career 11 years ago: either pursue opera full time, with all its glamour and potential fame and money, or devote herself, also full-time, to singing in Ladino, a language on the verge of disappearing.

She decided to sing in Ladino—and doesn’t regret it.

Eleven years later, she has not only made a name for herself as a performer but also as composer and innovator of Ladino songs, not a small feat as new compositions in that language, are few and far between.

Since her beginnings she has walked a fine line between remaining faithful to old romanzas, or songs, some dating back to Medieval Spain, or rearranging them to make them appealing to new generations of Jews or non-Jews, especially Hispanics, who are not acquainted with Ladino or Sephardic culture. 

Born in Washington, D.C., the 36-year-old Aroeste, whose Ladino-speaking family 

migrated to the United States from Macedonia and Greece, trained in classical opera at Westminster  Choir College, in Princeton, N.J. She has degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies from Yale University.

In the summer of 1997 she performed at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, in Tel Aviv, where she studied with Nico Castel, one of the world’s top Ladino singers and coaches at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. 

At the beginning of her opera career, Aroeste incorporated traditional Ladino melodies in her recitals and after each presentation “people came to me and told me that the Ladino part of the opera was their favorite,” she said.

Then, she added, she realized that Ladino, not opera, was her true passion and soon after she devoted to performing in Ladino full time. But she wanted to stand out and didn’t take the predictable route of other Ladino performers. Thus, she added rock, funk jazz and blues to her melodies.

“When I told people I was going to start a Ladino rock band, they thought I was crazy because no one had ever heard of Ladino, let alone Ladino rock,” she said. “I felt that if it was done right it could succeed. I never imagined I’d be here talking to you 11 years later.”

Aroeste has performed in Cuba, Israel and several U.S. cities as well Spain, Greece, 

Bulgaria, Turkey and Serbia.

One of her biggest accomplishments, she said, was to be a finalist in 2008 in “Festiladino,” a competition of original Ladino songs in Jerusalem, where she performed a song by Roberto Rodriguez, En este corason (In This Heart), with the Jerusalem Symphony.

© Daniel Santacruz
June 2012  










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