Purists were skeptical when Sarah Aroeste debuted her Ladino rock 'n' roll band back in 2001. Most artists singing in the fading Sephardic language were traditionalists, performing classical versions of songs dating to the Jews' expulsion from Spain in 1492.
But here was Aroeste, mixing rock and jazz with the flamenco and Middle Eastern-tinged music of her ancestors, singing those same lush romances accompanied by electric guitar as well as oud. And, the New York press noted, she was doing so while performing with a bare midriff and gyrating hips -- moves that led several publications to label her "The Jewish Shakira."
During a recent phone interview from her Manhattan apartment, the 28-year-old singer expressed distaste for the "Shakira" label.
"People tend to harp on that, as if I'm being deliberately exploitative," she said with a sigh. "But why shy away from the sensuality that is actually in this culture?"
Yet, when she quit her day job to found the band, "people thought I was nuts," she said. "I mean, a Ladino rock group -- who had ever heard of that? So I was charting new territory. I was afraid of the critics, and I struggled to find a balance I hoped would work."
Mission apparently accomplished. Aroeste's 2003 CD, "A La Una -- In the Beginning," sold out its initial run and now shares shelf space with CDs by classical Sephardic artists, such as Isabel Ganz. Her band regularly performs not just at nightclubs but at Jewish venues across the United States.
In Los Angeles this week, she played at the Temple Bar, a rock nightclub, and Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel; tonight she'll appear at Sinai Temple's young adult service, Friday Night Live.
Observers have noted her crossover appeal: "I am stunned ... at how successfully Aroeste has succeeded in setting this music in a way that makes it contemporary, without losing the very traditional feel of the music and the music's roots," Ari Davidow wrote in Klezmer Shack magazine. "Until ['A La Una'], I don't think I could have pointed to a sharp, contemporary, danceable Sephardic music album. Until I heard this particular album, I don't think it would have occurred to me that the category was necessary."
"Sarah has really cornered the market on Ladino rock," said Randee Friedman of Sounds Write Productions Inc., a distributer of her CD. "A lot of Ladino comes across my desk, but it's old-style, and Sarah is really hip. She's reaching out to the younger generation, and I think she's been very successful at that."
If Aroeste has successfully conveyed her enthusiasm for Sephardic music, it's virtually in her blood. She grew up in a "big, fat Jewish Greek family" in Princeton, N.J., where Ladino songs graced the record player and the Shabbat dinner table. The Yale-educated soprano further fell in love with the ancient art form while studying at a Tel Aviv opera summer program eight years ago.
But when she organized a new Jewish music project for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1999, Aroeste grew "frustrated and disappointed" by the dearth of novel Sephardic fare. The klezmer-fusion renaissance was thriving in Ashkenazi circles, courtesy of artists such as Frank London and John Zorn, "but there was nothing Sephardic that I could relate to as a modern, American woman," she said.
"I felt, this music is in danger of disappearing within a generation unless we do something to reach new people," the performer continued. "And that became my mission."
To reach as wide an audience as possible, Aroeste focused her Sephardic fusion on secular, rather than liturgical songs. "The themes are totally universal and contemporary, like bad breakups, blinddating, crushes, long-distance relationships," she said. "In fact, if you walked into one of my shows, you might not even realize it's Jewish music, because it doesn't sound the way most people think of Jewish music, meaning klezmer."
"Yo M'enamori" ("Moon Trick"), for example, is more reminiscent of contemporary rock; Aroeste's trance remix of "Hija Mia" ("The One I Want") sounds practically psychedelic.
Yet all her songs are grounded in the original, ancient melodies and lyrics, which has apparently satisfied would-be critics.
"At first, people wanted to see if I was going to completely change and popularize the music, but they've seen that's not the case," she said. "I've worked hard to maintain the integrity of the music and to use my work to preserve and revitalize the tradition."
Sarah Aroeste will perform Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m. at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. For more information, visit www.saraharoeste.com .