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New children’s songs in an old language

Sarah Aroeste’s recently released album is exactly the kind of music parents of young children look for and toddlers love: catchy, easy-to-sing melodies, simple repetitive lyrics inspired by the child’s everyday world, and dollops of humor and surprise.

What sets this album apart is that the songs are in Ladino, the medieval Judeo-Spanish dialect Sephardic Jews took with them when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago. Ladino, like Yiddish, was used by a large swath of Jews until a few generations ago and is now disappearing.

In a phone interview from her home in the Berkshires, in northwestern Massachusetts, Aroeste, 40 — who has performed at L.A.’s Sephardic Music Festival and built her musical career on Ladino — said her new children’s album, “Ora de Despertar” (Time to Wake Up), grew out of her personal experiences as a mother. When she was pregnant with her first child a few years ago, she tried to find a children’s album in Ladino — and failed.

“Of course, there are some wonderful Ladino lullabies that are beloved — very fun, sprightly songs that, certainly, kids could enjoy, but they weren’t written for kids. … I was a soon-to-be mother who wanted to play music for my kids in the same vein as all the other CDs I was receiving in English or Hebrew. I wanted the equivalent in Ladino and I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to write it myself,” Aroeste said.

Out of her determination to fill that void, Aroeste composed and recorded an album of 10 Ladino children’s songs directly inspired by her motherhood experience.

Most of the album’s songs are from a toddler’s point-of-view. The title song is about waking up in the morning and stretching your fingers and toes, while another song is about mealtimes. Underscoring the toddler-centric nature of the songs, we find out that this child’s favorite meal is … dessert!

Other songs are about the child’s family, how to greet others and what the different parts of the body do: eyes, ears, hands and so on. There’s a song that encourages the child to count from 1 to 10 using barnyard animals, and a fantasy song where a child imagines what it would be like to be a star, a cloud or the sun.

A couple of the songs in the album are more contemplative, lullabies that combine wistfulness and reflection, composed not from the point of view of a child but from that of a parent concerned about her child’s future life or present discomfort.

“Some of these songs were written while [I was] pregnant with my first child,” Aroeste said. “One of the lullabies in particular, ‘Komo Vas a Ser?’ (How Will You Be?). I was imagining what my child would be like. That was one of the first songs I wrote.”

The album’s other lullaby was composed after Aroeste’s first daughter, Irit, was born, and Aroeste felt the universal anguish of a mother trying to comfort her crying child. Out of that experience, Aroeste composed “Kualo Tienes?” (What’s Wrong?). In the song, the mother assures her infant girl that she’ll hold her and do what she can to ease her pain.

The album, Aroeste said, was a personal project in every sense. It was composed while she was pregnant with her first child, and recorded when she was in a late stage of pregnancy with her second daughter, Dalia, and while Irit, her first-born, was “toddling around.”

“I was eight months pregnant with Dalia, so I was too pregnant to travel,” Aroeste said. “My producer recorded the instrumental part of the album separately in New York, and then brought the mixes to my living room in the Berkshires, and he just plopped the microphone in the middle of my living room with toys everywhere. And I recorded it in about two days with my daughter running around. And that really lent itself to some of the spirit on the album, that it was recorded in the place where it was inspired.”

In fact, Aroeste said, one song’s rhythm was directly influenced by Irit.

“My daughter was walking outdoors for the first time,” Aroeste said. “It was last spring, and she’d never walked barefoot on grass before. So that was the first opportunity for her to walk outside and she was in awe of all that nature she saw in front of her. [‘Si Yo Era el Sielo’ (If I Were the Sky)] was inspired by that experience, just watching her outside as she learned to walk, toddling from leaf to tree to flower, so that song captured the rhythm of her feet.”

“Nochada Buena” (Good Night) is the last song on the album and bookends a complete day with the title song. “I wrote that song when I realized that my daughter thought there were too many fun things to do while you’re awake, so she never wanted to go to sleep,” Aroeste said.

Aroeste, who was born and grew up in the United States, trained in classical opera at Westminster Choir and Yale University but became dedicated to the preservation of Ladino. She traces this passion to her family’s roots in the Ladino-speaking Jewish communities of Greece and Macedonia, and to having studied Sephardic musical traditions in Israel and the U.S.

For Aroeste, the lyrics to the title track, “Ora de Despertar,” are not just about a child waking up in the morning, they’re a call to arms for Jews around the world.

“On the surface … it’s a fun song for kids and [about] their rituals when they get up in the morning,” Aroeste said. “But it’s very meaningful for me. I think it’s a deeper message for parents, and the outside world, that it’s time to wake up.

“It’s also about the urgent need to preserve the language, traditions and music of Sephardic Jews. If we don’t start teaching our kids Ladino, it will be too late. So it’s a wake-up call for all of us.”