Interview with Ladino children's songwriter Sarah Aroeste
A few months ago, we covered the release of Sarah Aroeste’s children’s album and educational materials for teaching Ladino. A while ago, we caught up with the songwriter and educator to ask her more about her album and her quest to save Ladino.
Jewschool: Where did your passion for Ladino come from?
Sarah Aroeste: One of my favorite childhood memories is of watching my great aunts in the kitchen baking our family’s “tadliko” cookie on special holidays. I had so many questions about our Sephardic heritage (to which the tadliko belongs); sadly, I received few answers. When my family arrived in America after escaping the Balkan Wars (from Monastir, which during the Ottoman Empire was Upper Greece/Lower Yugoslavia and is now considered Macedonia), they wanted to leave the old country behind and find success in their new one. Many traditions were lost along the way, including our family’s beautiful language of Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish. While Ladino was my grandfather’s first language, he never spoke it to me. I always knew to be proud of my rich heritage, but I was frustrated that the culture wasn’t being passed down to my generation except for a couple of foods, folksongs and family reunions in Greece. I wanted to know more!
At the same time I was training as a musician—a Western classical vocalist. I was singing in Tel Aviv at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute where I just happened to have an opera coach, Nico Castel, who shared my Sephardic background. In between my opera coachings, he taught some of the classical Ladino repertoire. I fell in love with it. I started incorporating a set of Ladino songs into my opera recitals, and without fail, after each performance audience members would approach and tell me that the Ladino portion was their favorite part of the program. After a while, I realized I agreed with them! The personal connection to the language, and the culture behind it, just spoke to me musically in a way that traditional opera did not. Not long after, I made the switch to working in Ladino fulltime. I studied briefly at the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York and then simply made it my mission to acquire all the materials I could to teach myself, through workbooks, music liner notes, online forums and more. Gradually I made musical friends and colleagues from around the globe and, with the explosion of Internet resources (Yahoo and FB groups, Ladino e-zines and more), I started communicating in Ladino regularly. When people ask me if I’m fluent in Ladino now, I tell people that I sing it fluently – as I don’t have much opportunity to practice my conversation skills daily. But I read and write in it, and now I’m proud to call it my songwriting medium! I only have one living relative left for whom Ladino was her first language, but I have wonderful and generous native-speaking advisors whom I turn to for help reviewing my materials—of course I want to make sure I’m transmitting the culture properly!
Have Ladino children’s songs really become scarce?
Ladino was an oral tradition for hundreds of years, so there wasn’t ever a genre of children’s music per se. It was all one and the same—all part of a folk tradition passed down from generation to generation. Some of Ladino music is very adult-themed (Murder! Adultery! Sex!)- which obviously is not very appropriate for kids. There are certainly some gorgeous traditional lullabies, as well as very playful songs that kids can enjoy, even if they weren’t specifically for or about kids. Many of these selections are sung today by a very sweet (and talented!) Ladino children’s choir from Istanbul. But with the Ladino-knowledgeable community dwindling, I am very concerned that my own children won’t have access to resources that will help them keep the Ladino language alive. When my first daughter was born, I wanted to be able to share music that she could relate to—along the lines of the myriad other contemporary children’s CDs we were receiving as gifts. I wanted to sing with her fun, catchy tunes with easy to learn concepts – in Ladino. I couldn’t find ones that I believed fit. So I wrote my own.
What’s been the response?
So far, so great! I didn’t create the project solely for Sephardic families (that would be a small target audience!)—I really wanted to produce this project for anybody interested in Jewish or world cultures. I believe those in Jewish education have a responsibility to expose families to the diversity of Jewish life today – sadly Sephardic culture is often left out of the curriculum. I always tell people that Sephardic culture is Jewish culture—you don’t have to be Sephardic to enjoy it. Nor do you have to be Jewish! Ladino is so universal—it’s one of the things I love about it. It has so many different languages (Castilian Spanish at its core, with bit of French, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew and more) and it crosses many centuries and geographic boundaries. Good music is good music—no latter the language. My album happens to be in Ladino. Some people might just enjoy the album for its catchy tunes, and for others who have a personal connection to Ladino, it will obviously have a deeper meaning.
Will you create songs for older kids as yours grow up? And when will you let your kids learn the more adult, bawdy songs?
I already have another album in my head that I’m starting to work on – which will continue the family-friendly fare. I’m really enjoying getting to know the children’s music scene. But I do love the more adult music as well, and I continue to tour with that music. My daughters often hear me rehearsing those songs; thank goodness they don’t know what they mean!
Where else online can one go to hear and learn more Ladino musical culture?
There are so many terrific artists doing great work in the Ladino sphere. From traditional music to contemporary stylings—there’s a lot of rich music out there. Too much to list! People interested in ethnomusicology will appreciate www.sephardicmusic.org, which details some of the earliest Sephardic recording ever made! And I just did a search on Amazon for “Ladino Music” and there were over 800 Cd’s that popped up—and those are just the ones that have “Ladino” in the title…