Originally written for the Multicultural Arts Exchange newsletter.
“Music is a universal language,” Sarah Aroeste says. “If it moves you, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in.”
Sarah Aroeste is one of the premier Ladino performers and writes original songs in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jews. A language on the brink of extinction, Sarah helps preserve and promote Ladino through her performances. She is known for her signature blend of traditional music and modern genres like rock and jazz. “I grew up in America, on Bruce Springsteen. When I first heard the music [of Ladino], that’s how I heard it,” she says. After a 20-year career (that’s still growing), Sarah has run the gambit from traditional to experimental and released six albums, even a children’s album and book. “My interest is to push the culture forward,” Sarah explains. “Preservation is about going forward, because of kids, you want it to be alive and make this culture exciting.”
In Ellie Falaris Ganelin, Sarah found someone who shared her vision. Ellie is the founder of the Greek Chamber Music Project, an organization dedicated to promoting Greek composers. Ellie and Sarah connected through their shared Greek heritage, Ellie’s father also hails from Salonica. In Sarah, Ellie saw an individual with the same passions from a culture with similar struggles. “When I learned about the Sephardic Jews, I felt a deep connection with them, coming from the Mediterranean and being part of a diaspora,” Ellie explains.
Diaspora is when a group must flee their homeland and are scattered. Diaspora is universal, happening to all kinds of people throughout time. The experience of Syrian refugees fleeing from the civil war is a diaspora of today. “I live in diaspora as well, and I try to keep my dad’s language alive for my daughter,” Ellie says, being of Greek heritage and growing up in the U.S. “Living abroad is always a challenge when there’s a dominant language, but you have to keep alive what’s important to you.”
The pair, along with Israeli pianist and producer Shai Bachar, are currently touring their concert, Remembering the Jews of Greece: A Musical Journey, to share Ladino through music. The multimedia concert will feature Sarah performing old and new songs in Ladino, accompanied by Ellie on flute and Shai on piano. There will be a mix of music from all over, just like the culture of the Sephardim—Spanish, Balkan, folk, rock. The program uses video projection to display lyric translations, footage of Sarah’s grandparents in Salonica, and interviews with Holocaust survivors from the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University. The complete experience will be a celebration of the Greek Jews, bringing them alive through the music and film of real people who lived through that time. “I hope this music inspires people and educates them,” Ellie says. “I am excited to share this and move people in a way that matters.”
The trio will have already performed up and down the east coast, from Connecticut to Washington, DC. On November 10th they will finish their tour in Philadelphia, in partnership with the Multicultural Arts Exchange (MAE). Sarah and Ellie are multicultural artists striving to make a positive impact in their communities through their art and music, the type of artists the Multicultural Arts Exchange strives to support. Together they hope Jewish and non-Jewish people alike join them in paying tribute to the Sephardim, bringing new experiences to the Northeast Philadelphia community and helping keep a lost language alive.
“This is not a Jewish concert. This is universal,” Sarah emphasizes. “All of the songs and stories express such universal themes that anybody will be able to relate to. Ladino as a language and culture is so inviting because it keeps all of the best parts of European cultures. It is a bridge-building culture.”
To learn more about Sarah Aroeste and Ladino, visit saraharoeste.com or her blog. You can listen to her music on her youtube channel. To learn more about Ladino, read my previous blog “Ladino: The Lost Language of the Jews of Greece.”