Sarah Aroeste | Gracia
album review by John Powell
Strange, but pretty, Sarah Aroeste’s Gracia is a set of Ladino music, blending an array of influences, from Jewish poetry to Medieval heroism. To the average listener, the album is a little weird, and yet oddly elegant. It’s part pop, part rock, part flamenco, and not a lot of fluff. Certain aspects tie the 11 songs together, such as acoustic and resonant guitar, handclaps, polyrhythms, and Sarah’s sharp, good voice. There’s plenty of piano too, the heavy kind, not the honky tonk, and some sax. The result is mixed, some songs interesting and lovely, others nothing new or too new for casual taste.
The primary purpose of this album is two fold: the first is to celebrate Ladino culture, which Sarah grew up with in New York City. She embraces the grooves and dance-ability of the music, and middle eastern flavors, and the language, which is something like Spanish, so anyone that understands Spanish could translate most of it. Sarah outright knows that not many people speak the language, but argues that feeling transcends language. Secondly, the album is all about girl power, at times without any huff, but sometimes a bit contrived, which we’ll get to later on.
“Gracia” starts things off, and it’s one of the weirder picks, as the rhythm has a slightly jazzy feel, partially dissonant but pulling it in. Sarah sings, “Tu mos das dicha (you gave us command),” and later, “You gave of strength,” etc. Is this a song to God? I don’t think so. The album is so focused on this subculture that Sarah’s likely ruminating on the history of her people. “You gave us valor,” she continues. The sax adds to that jazz flare, doing its own thing. A soundbite at the end says, “Sex and race, because they are visible differences, has been the primary ways of separating people into superior and inferior groups.” If you didn’t catch on beforehand, Sarah’s got an agenda.
“Scalerica De Oro/Dodi Yarad” has a much different flare, pulsating with middle eastern electric guitar. It’s a song that makes you want to bellydance. In a club. Sarah’s band is a flux of back-up singers, male and female, and tons of varied instrumentation. Strings rule here. “Venimos a ver (we’ve come to see),” the chorus goes, and it’s definitely one of the better tracks.
A major change-up, but fun one, is the Abba disco dance of “Ensuenyo Te Vi”, with light drumming, finger picked guitar, and it all slowly building over cool organ and soft strings. It’s a great little love song, quite out of character of the rest of the album, but honestly one of the better tracks.
I’m not sure if “La Comida La Mañana” is a terrible song or a balls-out rocker. The reason is that the actual song is awesome. Heavy guitar punctuates over rock drums. Sarah sings calmly over this, and the juxtaposition is great, not to mention the lyrics, a conversation between a mother and her independent daughter. However, it starts with spoken word artist Vanessa Hidary speaking, “For all you crazy, eccentric, romantic, pulling your hair out wild child women out there: I am you. You are me. We are fire.” Urg. If it couldn’t be articulated in the actual song, this intro isn’t helping. Not to mention mid-point that says, “We are high heels yet hoodies/we are not perfect/sometimes our cup runneth over with passion.” It’s didactic, for sure, and maybe a great song for a preteen in need of a self-esteem boost, but the contrivance breaks up the otherwise badass song.
“El Leon Ferido” ends the album- (before a remix of “Scalerica De Oro”). It’s a piano-driven, quiet song with somewhat of a cheesy-yet-gorgeous string build up. Sarah’s voice is really great, neither too jazzy, harsh, or whiny and high. She drives the album forward while much of the instrumentation feels excessive.
Yet few albums take these risks as successfully as on Gracia, and Sarah was successful with both her purposes, making an album as a spokeswoman for the minority woman unafraid to do what she feels is right, and to combine a million influences into a cohesive album. If you’re into world music with the New York flare, Sara Aroeste is for you.
Bottom line: Up and down roller coaster of sounds make Sarah Aroeste’s many influences and culture into a flavorful album, lacking in subtlety but bursting with energy.