With a bare midriff and gyrating hips, Sarah Aroeste performs jazz and rock blended into favorites from her Sephardic repertoire: songs like "Hija Mia" (The One I Want) and "Yo M’enamori" (Moon Trick).
"I’m not trying to promote sexy visions," Aroeste, a classically trained vocalist, said. "But the music is incredibly romantic and intoxicating." Romantic and intoxicating? "Jewish music" usually brings to mind melodies either liturgical or lively, but not exactly sexy. Ladino music is "alluring and sensual and can be appreciated in that way," said Aroeste, who last week released "A La Una: In the Beginning," her first Ladino CD.
The music is no mere attention-grabbing gimmick for Aroeste, who founded her own record label two years ago. It’s a connection to her Greek Jewish heritage and ancestral roots in medieval Spain. The granddaughter of immigrants from Salonika in northern Greece (a center of Sephardic Jewry before the Holocaust) Aroeste grew up hearing songs and sayings in Ladino, the mix of Castilian Spanish, Hebrew and other languages spoken by Jews dispersed throughout the Mediterranean after the Expulsion of 1492.
"There’s a whole body of music that most people are not familiar with, that presents Jewish culture in a very different way," Aroeste told the Jewish Week. Sephardic music is often confused with Mizrahi music, she said, referring to Jewish music from Arab countries. "Mediterranean music is very broad. I’m not Moroccan, Yemenite or Persian." In fact, her surname, a common one among Greek Jews, means "from the West."
Drawing from her "cool, funky background," Aroeste is determined to preserve and promote the Sephardic sound. And she’s not alone in her goal. Among a small group of New York-based performers working in Ladino is Casablanca-born singer and guitarist Gerard Edery, who just over a decade ago put out his first Ladino-language CD, "Romanzas Sefarditas." He’s now at work on No. 13, to be released on his independent label, Sefarad Records (Sefarad being Hebrew for "Spain"). Edery and Aroeste shared the bill last month at the Washington Jewish Music Festival, which devoted most of its 5-day program to "a new trend in American Jewish music": performers who draw inspiration from "Spanish-speaking, Mizrahi, Sephardi and spiritual elements."
Edery, who arrived in New York via Paris at 9 years old, came of age with the music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He has tried to keep Sephardic folk music "fresh and alive" by using instruments familiar to Western audiences, like guitars and violins, and arrangements with a contemporary folk feel. On July 2, he performs songs of courtship and marriage in "A Path to Love" with vocalist and virtuoso trumpeter Magda Fishman at Makor.
Trained in opera, Edery’s admits to "a certain level of classicism" in his work. His last album, "The Sons of Sepharad," was a Sephardic three tenors, recorded with cantors Aaron Bensoussan and Alberto Mizrahi. His newest project promises to be more pop, he said; not quite top 40, but a way to cultivate audiences lacking operatic appreciation.
Similarly, the Israeli-born singer Yardena sees Ladino music as an avenue open to exploration and commercial exploitation. The Tel Aviv native, who is sixth generation Israeli on her mother’s side and Yemenite on her father’s, can’t claim to be returning to familial roots with her new CD "Yardena Y son Ladino." In it, Yardena sets Sephardic standards (love songs like the classic "Los Bilbilicos" or the religiously themed "El Rey Nimrod" (King Nimrod)) to Afro-Cuban rhythms. She sees a connection between the two musical traditions that emerged centuries ago in Spain. There’s also a New York connection, as Ladino culture flourished until the 1940s in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Lower East Side, as well as New Brunswick, N.J., Seattle and Los Angeles. It’s seeing signs of reawakening today.
Yardena’s 34-year American career has included stints with heavy metal, new wave and Latin jazz bands. Still, she said, a desire to sing in Ladino "was brewing in me" for decades after she performed in a concert organized by Israel’s fifth president and national authority on Ladino, Yitzhak Navon. Sephardic music "touches the Jewish soul in me," said the smoky-voiced singer, who performs at the Open Center on June 27.
Aroeste also recognizes the connection between Spanish and Jewish music and hopes the success of Latin music in mainstream markets will rub off on Mediterranean music as well. Raised in Princeton, N.J., the Yale graduate was prompted to go Ladino by the creative fusions she saw coming out of the Ashkenazi music world.
Innovators like Frank London and John Zorn were performing music that was "primarily klezmer, but not exclusive to it," she said. Yet she heard nothing similar coming from Sephardic musicians.
Most people working in Ladino were "either people considerably older, or they are only performing in very traditional, pure classical folk style," she said. Instead, she wanted "to create a style that I felt could represent me and that my peers could also relate to."
The result, "A la Una," combines an eclectic assortment of stringed and percussive instruments (the oud, the qanun, the darbuka, the riqq), with electric guitars and electronic drums. There’s even a somewhat psychedelic dance remix of "Hija Mia."
While conservative critics may bristle at what they hear as unorthodox updates, Aroeste says she’s taking ownership of her history in the way that makes the most sense to her. "I see what I’m doing as preserving the culture for a new generation," she said.
"Yardena Y Son Ladino: Afro-Cuban Sephardic Concert" takes place at the Open Center, 83 Spring St., Manhattan, (212) 219-2527, Ext. 110, www.yardena.com. Fri., June 27, 8:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. $18, $16. Gerard Edery performs "A Path to Love" at Makor, 35 W.67th St., Manhattan, (212) 601-1000, www.sefaradrecords.com. Wed., July 2, 8 p.m. $12. Sarah Aroeste’s debut CD "A la Una: In the Beginning" is available at www.saraharoeste.com.