On July 9, amid rainwater cracks in limestone rock, charcoal ibex painted by prehistoric man and discarded artifacts from Victorian-era picnics, a loose collective of Jewish women will sing songs of the Sephardic Diaspora.
Vocalists Sarah Aroeste, Mor Karbasi and Françoise Atlan will perform at the inaugural Gibraltar World Music Festival in the time-formed Cueva de San Miguel, or Saint Michael’s Cave, a labyrinth of limestone caverns in the Rock of Gibraltar. They will be joined by the band Ofir, and are billed together as the Sephardic Divas. Such a performance would have been unimaginable only a decade ago. Back then, Aroeste remembers, Ladino music, also known as Judeo-Spanish music, was just a shadow of a spirited klezmer scene packing venues throughout New York.
“I saw these klezmer musicians, and I was so jealous of them,” related Aroeste, now 36. At that time, in 2003, she was just wrapping up her debut album, a set of traditional Sephardic standards titled “A La Una.” Since then, the Ladino community has exploded. Its growth has largely been due to the Internet, which has connected musicians like Aroeste to other artists and fans, taking small communities and forging them into a global movement.
“I don’t believe any of us have ever met,” Aroeste said of her soon-to-be co-performers in Gibraltar. “We’re all in different countries.” Their home bases include the United States (Aroeste), France (Atlan) and Spain (Karbasi). Yan Delgado, whose organization, Sephardic Stories, is putting together the festival, is from Casablanca but now lives in Gibraltar. Other artists, like Yasmin Levy, whose father, Yitzchak Levy, was the director of the Judeo-Spanish department in the Israeli broadcasting service Kol Israel, reside and perform in Israel. Sefiroth, a 10-piece minimalist band that deploys stripped-down interpretations of classical Sephardic songs, comes from England. The band released two EPs, “Arboles Iloran por Iluvia” (“Trees Cry for Rain”) and “Abre Tu Puerta Serrada” (“Open Your Closed Door”) in February.
The story of artists working to keep their historic culture relevant and fresh is a familiar one, but in the case of Ladino, it has a few unusual wrinkles. To start, the dispersed state of Ladino music is rooted in its very inception. Ladino refers both to the assorted dialects of the Spanish Jewish exiles who were forced to flee Spain in the 15th century and to their musical traditions. As such, there is not one Ladino culture, but a Diaspora filled with them, from the Balkans to Turkey to the Middle East and North Africa.
Practitioners of Ladino music reflect this eclecticism. Aroeste traces her ancestors back to Greece’s Macedonia and to the country’s once vibrant community of Salonica, which was almost completely obliterated in the Holocaust. “Honestly, it’s the most typical immigrant story,” Aroeste told me over the phone in early May, from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Her family fled to the United States during the Balkan Wars, in the 1910s.
“I knew my family was different from other Jewish families, so I made it my mission to teach myself as much as I could about my Sephardic tradition,” Aroeste explained. That mission took her to the Israel Vocal Arts Institute in 1997, where she studied with Nico Castel, author of two classic Ladino songbooks. In between opera lessons, they went through the Ladino repertoire together. Today, Aroeste performs and occasionally gives workshops on such topics as “Women and Sensuality in Sephardic Music” at local synagogues and at Jewish community center events. For the past two years, she has focused on songwriting and recording.
While Ladino music is part of an ethnic folk tradition and is still performed at weddings and community events, it has also become a serious subject of academic inquiry and, for artists like Aroeste, a bit of both. These exchanges between popular and academic studies of Ladino culture complicate notions of what is, or isn’t, authentic.