Singer Sarah Aroeste and Chef Susan Barocas explore the relationship between music and food in Sephardic culture
The connection between music and food is at the heart of Sephardic culture and tradition. The two sensory experiences have survived in their unique forms, despite the Spanish Inquisition, Balkan Wars, the Holocaust and more. Song and food have united Sephardic Jews in their diaspora and have connected them through shifting centuries and borders.
Savor (music and videos release April 21, 2023) is a project that brings together and explores Sephardic song and cuisine in a multi-sensory way. The word “savor” means “flavor,” and each song in this new album by Singer Sarah Aroeste revolves around a specific and beloved food item in Sephardic life. As a collection, the songs have been organized into a musical menu of mezés (appetizers), plato prinsipal (main course) and dulse (dessert). Each track is paired, in partnership with Chef Susan Barocas, with a dish prepared by a female chef who emphasizes Sephardic culture in her work. The recipes were each inspired by a song’s highlighted food and include vegan, vegetarian, fish, chicken and meat options. Each chef also created a companion cooking video. As you listen and scroll through the lyrics and recipes, you will notice how the music, food and, indeed, life itself, is being celebrated.
The songs on the album showcase the lives of Sephardic women through the food they cooked and traditions they sustained for hundreds of years. At the center of the songs are ingredients and dishes that often date back to Sephardic life prior to the Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain and Portugal. By exploring the tales and foods in these songs, one can get a literal taste of how Sephardim lived, what history they carried and what in life mattered to them.
Starting with mezés, Track 1 (Una muchacha en Selanika) tells the story of a Sephardic girl who was forced to convert to Islam because she could not properly prepare the stuffed grape leaves expected of her. Track 2 (Siete modos de guisar la berenjena) demonstrates seven different ways women can prepare eggplant. There are longer versions of this song that enumerate over thirty! Track 3 (La envenenadora) comes from the Sephardic song tradition of romances, epic tales of high drama. Here, a girl poisons her lover in a forest, and when he wakes up in agony, she has a turn of heart and tries to revive him with chicken soup. Track 4 (Chiko Ianiko) is the only song on this album not of a traditional source, but composed by the late Flory Jagoda z”l. She wrote this song about the delight of baking burekas with her grandchild. Here Aroeste sings the sweet song with her own two young daughters. Track 5 (Viva Orduenya) is a traditional song that accompanies a wedding dance connecting the act of baking bread – from sowing the seeds, to harvesting, kneading, etc. – with female fertility.
On to the plato prinsipal, Track 6 (El Dio la mate esta Grega) is a mash-up of a well-known Sephardic song and one more obscure. The former is a song from Salonika, Greece (La cantiga del fuego) that bemoans the tragic fire of 1917 that ravaged the Jewish quarter and left much of Salonika in ashes. Many accused Jews of influencing the fire because of their desecration of the Sabbath. The second song, in jest, is a ditty that pokes fun at such a ridiculous accusation by claiming the fire was started by a woman in the kitchen who burned the eggplant she was roasting. Track 7 (Debate de las komidas) is part of the Sephardic song tradition of coplas, musical poems around historical events and holidays. Based on a copla for the spring festival of Tu B’shvat in which different flowers debate their virtue, here the debate, akin to a beauty pageant, is about which food item is the best! Track 8 (Ke komiash duenya), with origins from Bulgaria, is a cumulative counting song that enumerates what the lady of the house ate on each night of Passover (similar to “Twelve Days of Christmas”). The song starts after the third evening, likely a tradition from Spanish Anusim (Crypto-Jews) to throw off the Inquisition. Track 9 (Peshkado frito) is a cheeky song with Moroccan origins about the vendor, Jacob, who fries his fish in his wife Mazaltov’s oven.
And finishing up with dulse, Track 10 (Si veriash a la rana) is about sisters in the kitchen (in the forms of a frog, a mouse and a camel) rolling out phyllo dough and shelling walnuts to make a sweet treat!
As varied as the flavors of the foods are the musical sounds. From Greek bouzouki to Balkan brass, Moroccan rhythms, fresh beats and more, the Ladino songs also include specific words in Turkish, Haketia and other dialects. While most of the songs are transcribed in a standard Ladino form, Aroeste chose to leave certain phrases written and pronounced as per her song sources to keep their unique essences.
And so with that, you are invited to dive in with all your senses. Listen, read, feel, smell, taste…Savor!