By Daniel Santacruz
Lots of percussion, people of different backgrounds dancing and English interspersed with Ladino are the main features of Sarah Aroeste’s new video, “Buen Shabat.”
Released on January 1 to coincide with the first Shabat of 2021, the three-minute long video opens with Aroeste singing in English and Ladino, surrounded by members of her family, as she points at different items at two tables set for Shabat: challah, candles and wine.
About 45 seconds into the video six couples appear at both ends of the tables dancing merengue, a dance originating in the Dominican Republic that has become very popular in several cities in the United States, and invite the people sitting at the table to join them.
The video, filmed at the Berkshire Hills Country Club in Pittsfield, Mass., features members of Alan Franco and Berkshire Salsa, a dance studio in that city, and members of the Jewish and Latino communities of the Berkshires.
“The Buen Shabat Project brings together the Jewish community and the Latino community to learn about what the makes our cultures similar,” said Aroeste in a behind-the-scenes look at how the video came about. “A lot of people don’t know there is a Jewish-Hispanic culture.”
She continued: "I grew up in a family that spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, which is the language of Sefardic Jews, and there is a connection between Jewish culture and Hispanic culture little known today.”
That connection evolves mainly around, food and dance, she added.
“Buen Shabat” is one of the songs included in Aroeste's fifth album, “Together/Endjuntos,” released in September of 2017, and her first Ladino/English album. Her first all-original Ladino children's album, “Ora de Despertar, came out in 2016.
Aroeste shot “Buen Shabat” in 2018, planning to release it on the anniversary of the album debut. She then sold a children’s book by the same name to Kar-ben Publishing and decided it was best to hold off releasing the video to coincide with marketing plans for the book. The release of the book, illustrated by Ayesha Rubio, got pushed off from 2019 to March of 2020. Then the pandemic hit.
“Circumstances got in the way [to release the video] and the right moment just never presented itself until now,” she said in an interview with Kolsefardim. “I thought that after the year we’ve had it would be beautiful to release something joyous and uplifting for the start of 2021 and it just happened that January 1 was also the first Shabbat of the new secular year.”
Between the old and the new
Aroeste has made a name for herself as a performer, 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 and non-Jews, especially Hispanics, who are not acquainted with Ladino or Sefardic culture.
Born in Washington, D.C., 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.
In an interview with this site a few years ago, she said that at the beginning of her opera career she 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.”
That made her realize that Ladino, not opera, was her true passion and soon after she devoted to performing in Ladino full time, she added. 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 as 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.