Sarah Aroeste went to school to study classical opera, and for one summer in the late 1990s, she trained in Israel, where her coach was a Ladino music scholar. Aroeste knew some Ladino folk songs thanks to her Sephardic Jewish roots, but that summer is what really turned her on to Ladino music.
Now, Aroeste writes, records and performs Ladino music.
"I always tell people if they knew about it, they'd love it," Aroeste said by phone from her home in New York. "So few people have even heard of Ladino. It's so universal, and that's reflected in the language itself."
Aroeste performs on Thursday at Artisphere as part of the 14th Annual Washington Jewish Music Festival. The festival starts Sunday and runs through May 11, featuring a number of artists performing at multiple area venues.
Aroeste was born in D.C. and raised in Princeton, N.J. She grew up with a proud Sephardic tradition, but she wanted to learn more about her family's history.
The Ladino language has roots in old Spanish, with other Mediterranean languages sprinkled in, as well as a Hebrew influence. The language was spoken by Sephardic Jews.
"People have written off Ladino for a long time now, saying that it's a dying or a dead language," Aroeste said. "That's really not true. It's still very much a spoken language in pockets of communities around the world.
"I feel like still too many people talk about preservation of Ladino culture by looking backward and just preserving the already repertoire and work," Aroeste continued. "I believe that in order to preserve our culture, we also need to be writing and producing new work."
Aroeste has three albums to her name. The first two were filled with traditional Sephardic standards, but her latest, "Gracia" (2012), features a number of original compositions. She ably blends rock, jazz and pop elements into her work.
"I never really saw myself as a songwriter before," Aroeste said. "I really saw myself as a cultural interpreter. I actually love writing in Ladino. I think writing in Ladino, there's a flow to it that came naturally to me."
Aroeste will be performing a stripped-down set at Artisphere. This is her second visit to the Washington Jewish Music Festival, having performed here in 2003.
"I just think it's so important for us to know where we come from, especially in this hyperglobalized world," Aroeste said. "I think people really do want to connect with their histories, with their past. Ladino is my way to do that."