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Making Ladino New Again

One of the more interesting developments in modern Jewish music is the emergence of a handful of bands that meld raucous New York rock and Putumayo-friendly world music. The Sarah Aroeste Band, a five-member group focused on the Judeo-Spanish music of the Ladino-speaking Diaspora, has become one of the scene’s pillars.

The band’s sophomore album, “Puertas,” is an argument about Ladino music’s future. Updating Sephardic sounds and Mediterranean melodies with rock flourishes, the group gives “Puertas” a low-fi garage vibe. The marriage of Ladino lyrics to this modern sensibility drives the album forward — showing that the past can not only infiltrate, but also add meaning to the present.

On album opener “Los Bilbilicos — Love Blooms,” Aroeste sings the first stanza, about a nightingale’s song, with an assured confidence. But midway through, the guitarist launches a solo that drones in and out, evoking the drug-fueled underground rock of the 1970s. It’s a jarring, striking departure. Aroeste’s self-assuredness gives way to an enticing vulnerability. Suddenly, the song has become this ominous relic, a voice without a time to belong to. It ends with the plea, “Core y salvame.” Run and save me.

Too often, experiments in Ladino and klezmer revival lack the puissance or impact that they had in their original contexts — what Walter Benjamin would call their “aura.” When Aroeste succeeds (and she often doesn’t, sometimes falling prey to an over-faithfulness to the traditional tunes), it’s because she’s learned that oft-cited maxim: You can’t go home again.

When Aroeste sings in English on the album’s final song, “Thessaloniki,” “Give me your song and cry it true/Come to me now I long for you,” she’s both beckoning to her heritage and lamenting a history she can never fully recreate. That tension is the heart and soul of her thrilling new album.

To hear “Los Bilbilicos” and other songs, visit the Sarah Aroeste Band’s MySpace page. To view video of a live performance by the group, click here.


Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and the New York Press.

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