For Ladino Musicians, World’s A Stage

Artists Are Forging a Global Sephardi Culture

Sultry Sephardi: Singer Sarah Aroeste highlights the inaugural Ladino music festival in Gibraltar.
courtesy of sarah aroeste
Sultry Sephardi: Singer Sarah Aroeste highlights the inaugural Ladino music festival in Gibraltar.

By Mordechai Shinefield

Published July 02, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.