"Feminist art is not some tiny creek running off the great river of real art. It is not some crack in an otherwise flawless stone. It is, quite spectacularly I think, art which is not based on the subjugation of one half of the species."
Andrea Dworkin (1946 - 2005) US "radical feminist, civil rights activist
worldbeatcanada: Global music is like cultural exercise. Not only does it preserve important aspects of language and folklore, through regular flexing and experimentation, it keeps culture relevant and vital. Sarah Aroeste (Arrow-es-tay) is a New York-based performer who sings in Ladino, a Judeo/Spanish dialect seldom heard. She celebrates the release of her new album called Gracia. Sarah, Gracia, thanks for joining us.
Sara Aroeste: Thank you for having me.
WBC: Congratulations on the arrival of two babies, the new album and a new baby girl, you're a first time mother. What's her name?
SA: Her name is Irique Juliana and she's a beauty!
WBC: Where does her first name come from?
SA: Her name has two meanings. The first is that she's named after my late father, Ira. It was hard to come up with names that are similar to Ira so we thought it would be a beautiful way to honor him. And, in Hebrew it actually means Daffodil and we really liked that as well.
WBC: That's beautiful.Were you expecting as this album was being recorded. How did that affect your performance do you think?
SA: I was not expecting when I recorded the record so I'm not sure it had much of an affect on this album, but, I think in the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to start a family, so I think somewhere, subconsciously, the name Gracia means Thank you.That's one of the meanings. There are actually a couple. It was really a thank you to a lot of the women who had inspired me up until this point. For a long time I had wondered about how I want to present myself and my career to future offspring, so I was very happywhen I found out I was having a girl, and I hope that this album, which has a little bit of a feminist bent can rub off on her.
WBC: Well, I want to get into that in just a bit.How did you become exposed to the Ladino language?
SA: Well, I grew up with Ladino in my family. We are Sephardic which means we are Jews of Spanish descent from 500 years a go, the time of the inquisition. In 1492 when Jews and others were asked to leave, my family instead of converting to Catholicism, decided to leave and move eastward to the Ottoman Empire where Sephardic Jews were welcomed. And, my family ended up in Greece and what is present day Macedonia. At the time it was all part of the Ottoman Empire. But, my family over the course over the past 500 years has retained their Sephardic culture, primary at this point preserved through the language of Ladino.
WBC:I love the fact that while the songs on the album are penned by you, they incorporate flotsam and jetsam from throughout the ages of Spanish and Sephardic cultures, like Ladino proverbs, Spanish children's songs, and there is your own feminist voice that draws on a rallying cry from the 70's, even the album title is a tribute to Dona Gracia Naci, a heroine who saved hundreds from the Spanish inquisition. Let's start with her story and fill us in on some of the source materials for this album.
SA: She was one of the most remarkable women of Renaissance Europe. Not only was she one of the richest women of the time, she was one of the richest people of the time, yet nobody has heard of her! It's really quite tragic. She's really but a footnote in most history books. She was a very wealthy Converso, a woman who, unlike my family, her family stayed on the Iberian Peninsula. She was actually from Portugal. She converted to Catholicism, but secretly maintained her Sephardic Jewish faith. Because she amassed such a huge amount of wealth; she married into a very wealthy shipping family, she was able to bribe kings, and even popes and sultans and lent them money. In return, she secured safe passage for other Jews who were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. She was just this vibrant, courageous, single mother; she was widowed at a very young age, and she had so much spunk and verve and I just really wanted to honor her and women like her who often go unsung.
WBC: What a fascinating role model!worldbeatcanada radio is on the air and on the pod with Sarah Aroeste, celebrating the release of her new album Gracia. Connect with her at her comprehensive website, www.saraharoeste.com. As you mature as a songwriter and now, as a mother are you finding more confidence to dig deep into your heritage?
SA: I am. I have always been fascinated by my culture and one of the things that makes me sad a little bit at this point is that, although there is a renaissance in Ladino preservation, I believe the majority of the people working in the field are moving backward. They are looking towards the material that already exists. There is an amazing repertoire of music and folk songs and proverbs and poetry but, I firmly believe that in order to preserve a culture, we can't always be looking backward. We also have to be moving forward. So, I would like to see more people creating new music and writing new material. There are several of us out there who are doing this. I work with some wonderful colleague around the world who are writing new material, and I would like to see more doing so. So, I believe that my new role as a mother and the fact that I'm also influenced by my American upbringing as well, which I don’t ever deny, there is so much fodder to still draw upon in my song writing . There really is a wealth of material; so much to be said, and I'm looking forward to the next chapter.
WBC: You know, you so anticipated my next question! Though Gracia digs into the past, it's very, very contemporary in its execution. Are you a rocker chick at heart?
SA: (laughs) I really am! I'm not quite sure where it came from, but I don't deny that I have very American influences as well, musically or otherwise. The music that I write and that I arrange is not necessarily through a Sephardic lens in terms of m instrumentation. I would say that a lot of my poetry and my song writing is certainly influenced by some Sephardic symbolism, but the music itself, I hear with a very romantic and edgy instrumentation and arrangement. That's just the way I hear it in my head. I think a lot of the traditional music has gotten lost in its interpretation throughout the past 500 years because it was an oral culture.In my opinion I think some of the lyrics don't always match the melody and tempo that has been preserved over the past 500 years. For example, you'll hear some songs that have been written in a major key with a very up tempo sound to it, yet the lyrics are incredibly dark and evil, and it just doesn't seem to match up. So, a lot of my work on Gracia, especially on the songs that are not my own, which I've re-arranged and given my own interpretation because I think it brings it closer to where the lyrics are. There's one song about being addicted to Raqi, which is the Turkish Arak, like Ouzo, the alcohol. In every interpretation I have heard it's up tempo, major key; it's a good old-fashioned drinking song. But, the lyrics themselves are terribly dark! It'sreally about being addicted to your vices and about being stuck in a ditch, rolling around in mud, getting divorced, ruining your relationship, I mean, it's a very, very sad song. So, I turned it into minor keys, I slowed down the tempo, I gave it a totally different vibe.
WBC: Thanks for that insight. That's really cool. I'd like to go back to Gracia and debut another track for our listeners; can you set up Scalerica De Oro/Dodi Yarad?
SA: Great! That's a combination of two songs. Again, they are two songs that I did not write myself. They are both traditional songs. The first piece is Scalerica De Oro, and that is a very traditional Sephardic wedding song. It literally means a ladder of gold, and it has a lot of symbolism of a bride climbing this ladder of gold towards heaven, towards God, because there's something very heavenly about uniting two people. And,the second song is Dodi Yarad which is taken from a piece of liturgy from the holiday Shavout, and it's about a bride, once again, coming closer to God because the marriage is such a heavenly union. The reason why I put these two songs together is because the first song has more grit and sounds a little dirtier. We even put in an electric guitar that has a very strong edge to it. It's a humorous song. It basically says the bride has no money, referring to her dowry from hundreds of years a go, but we wish you good luck. There's kind of a tongue-in-cheek humor about the song which, for me, I was actually was getting married about the time I was recording this album. But, then combined with the more liturgical second song which was more spiritual, more holy and I also wanted to make a statement about marriage that it's both the dirty and spiritual and together that's what makes a marriage powerful.
Sarah Aroeste was interviewed October 22nd, 2013 for broadcast on worldbeatcanada radio