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Sarah Aroeste Brings Ladino Music To A New Generation

Inspiration doesn’t always have a practical application. But it’s nice when it does.
And so it was for musician, mom and self-styled cultural ambassador Sarah Aroeste, whose latest album came to be because she wanted some music to play for her daughter that would celebrate her family’s specific cultural background. (More on that background in a moment.)
When she was expecting first child Irit, now two-and-a-half — who was joined last fall by sister Dalia — Aroeste realized there was no Ladino children’s music. “I wanted to write an album of songs in her family tradition that she could relate to, because I couldn’t find them anywhere else. They didn’t exist. There is no such thing as a Ladino children’s record,” she says, on the phone from her home in Alford, Mass.
Not until now. Aroeste’s album of Ladino music geared for children, Ora de Despertar (Time to Wake Up), was just released.
Oh, right. We Googled so you don’t have to: Ladino is the language and culture of Sephardic Jewry that emerged after the historically infamous expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492. The language is rooted in medieval Spanish, but picked up pieces of French, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and assorted Mediterranean dialects, reflecting the emerging Jewish diaspora.
Its musical culture, similarly, is a mix of influences from in and around the Mediterranean basin. The culture of eastern European Ashkenazi Jews is a more familiar presence in American life. The Ladino legacy has gotten more attention in recent years, Aroeste says, but is still in danger of flickering out. Thus the double meaning behind the title of her new album — the title track is a fun, jaunty number about kids waking up and brushing their teeth and starting their day, but it’s also a message to parents to keep this rich culture alive before it’s too late.
“Certainly people are waking up to the fact that Sephardic culture is important, and represents a really big part not only of Jewish history but world history,” she says. “Ladino is so universal. It’s pan-Mediterranean. And you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the culture or the music.”
This album is her fourth, and her second composed of all original songs. All her work is based in Ladino folk music but with a very contemporary spin. Her last album, Gracia, makes use of an 18-piece orchestra and plenty of electronic beats. Her musical vision is decidedly international, but Aroeste’s home base is a bucolic nook in the Berkshires.
She, husband Jeff Blaugrund and their two daughters have lived in Alford the past few years after moving up from New York City. (Jeff’s a software engineer who works remotely for a Palo Alto firm.)
But she’s no Berkshire novice. Her family habitually rented a summer house here when she was growing up in Princeton, Penn., and her mom bought a home in Alford 20 years ago, where she still resides.
Aroeste studied classical voice at Tanglewood in the summers, and it remains a favorite destination. If you want to bump into her, Jeff and the kids on a sunny summer Sunday, the Tanglewood lawn is the first place to look. Jacob’s Pillow and MASS MoCA are other favorite destinations. They worship at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. They’re also both avid fans of the local food movement.
Her family, which she traces back to upper Greece and lower Yugoslavia, came to the United States in flight from the Balkan Wars. The Ladino culture was very much present in her childhood home.
“During family occasions like the Jewish new year or any major family gathering, I had a very clear understanding that my family’s tradition was a little bit different from my friends. The foods that we ate were different. They were very Mediterranean and Greek,” she says, noting that the table would be laden with meze, and the cookie known as a tadlikoo was her favorite treat. “The songs and tunes that we sang were different from the ones I knew my Jewish friends were singing,” she adds, “and I had a clear understanding that I came from this very interesting Sephardic background.”
But when she wanted to learn more about the history, no one in her parents’ generation seemed to be an expert. It was only while she was studying classical voice in Israel that she became fully awakened to the richness of Ladino music. She started mixing a few of the songs into classical recitals, and noticed she was getting the most audience response from those pieces. Eventually she realized she agreed with her audiences. But she wasn’t interested in an austere rendering of traditional folk music.
“I knew I wanted to do it in a way that felt very authentic to me. I wasn’t born in the Balkans. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I’m American-born and my influences are contemporary. I was raised on American rock and roll. And so when I told people I wanted to start a Ladino rock band, I got a lot of raised eyebrows. But here I am, 15 years later and I’m still doing it.”
Those raised eyebrows have been replaced by lots and lots of tapping feet and clapping hands. But though her performing career has taken her to the Rock of Gibraltar and back again, the key source of inspiration for her newest work sits much closer to home.
“When my daughter hears the music being played, she says ‘Oh my gosh, that’s mommy, she wrote the music for me!’ It’s so sweet — obviously my heart just melts.”