Sarah Aroeste is a pioneer and leader in Sephardic Jewish culture and education. This three-part series about her twenty-year career speaks to a broader transformation that she has helped create in American Jewish life. Her newest recording, Hanuká, an album of all-Ladino holiday songs, will be released on November 19th. (Click here to read part 2 and part 3)
Twenty years ago, I told my mother that I wanted to start a Ladino rock band. I still remember her perplexed reaction. “A what?” she asked. At the time, I wasn’t sure if her confusion was about the fact that I wanted to perform contemporary interpretations of Ladino songs, or that I wanted to start a band dedicated to Ladino music at all. As a young woman in my early 20’s living in New York City, I was enamored of the idea of living an artist life and bringing the obscure music of my Sephardic heritage to my peers. Understandably, my mother asked me to take on a side (read: paying) job while I lived out this dream.
I always knew I would be a musician. I was on the pre-professional opera circuit, training, auditioning, and competing throughout high school and college. While performing in a summer opera festival in Tel Aviv before my senior year in college, I had the fortune to be paired with Nico Castel as my coach. Castel was not only a famous opera singer and coach at the Metropolitan Opera (dayeinu!- that would be enough), but we also shared the same Sephardic heritage. In between our formal lessons, he would teach me classical Ladino songs, music I hadn’t been exposed to in my youth.
I knew some songs here or there from my elders but singing Non Komo Muestro Dio (“Ein Keloheinu” in Ladino) comprised the bulk of my Ladino performance repertoire until then.
Upon returning to the US, I started to incorporate Ladino music into my opera recitals, and without fail, after each performance audience members would tell me that the Ladino portion was their favorite part. I agreed with them. I was singing the music differently as it reached my soul in a way that Mozart could not (no offense to Mozart). For most of my singing life, however, I had been committed to Western classical music. I didn’t know that there could be another option for me. ( Part 2 ) (Part 3)