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.
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.