Dancing with the Torah, Bhangra-style
International Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste recently teamed up with the Jewish community of Mumbai to create Baylamos, a musical celebration of Simchat Torah. Team Be’chol Lashon spoke to Aroeste and her Indian collaborator, Ednna Samuel, on how the colorful partnership came about.
Team Be’chol Lashon: The combination of Ladino and Indian music is certainly a unique one, especially for a song about Simchat Torah. How did your collaboration come to be?
Sarah Aroeste: First of all, I’ve always loved Simchat Torah and feel like it never gets enough attention in pop culture. The holiday celebrates one of the most joyous times of year, when the cycle of Torah readings ends and the new cycle begins. What more festive way to celebrate than to dance circles around the Torah! I knew as I was writing the song that I wanted a circular melody and celebratory words to match the spirit of the holiday. (The title, Baylamos, is Ladino for “We dance.”) And because the sentiment of joy for the Torah is felt in Jewish communities around the world, I wanted to give it a specific international flavor. So my producer, Shai Bachar, and I chose a bhangra-like feel to highlight the universal nature of the occasion. We recorded the song, and as soon as I was brainstorming ideas for a video, I knew I wanted to collaborate with a Jewish community in India. I reached out to two synagogues in Mumbai, and I am blessed to have found Eddna Samuel, one of the pillars of the Indian Jewish community. She is a treasure and we became fast friends. She understood what I wanted to do with the song, and she took it away from there!
Team Be’chol Lashon: Eddna, what drew you to Aroeste’s vision?
Eddna Samuel: I understood that Sarah wanted to combine her song, a Sephardic-influenced one in English and Ladino, with an Indian style. It was clear that Sarah really wanted her song to relate culturally to India. We could have filmed in Connecticut, where I was living when we met, but we knew it wouldn’t have the same effect and so we agreed to film it in Mumbai. The emphasis was to stay true to our roots. Most of our cast was made up of Jewish Indians, thus adding to the authenticity of the song and video. I loved the idea that Sarah’s song was so international, had such a festive feel, and would showcase the best of Jewish tradition, with Jewish Indian faces and vibrant colors to add to the Indian beat of the music. It was an amazing experience for us to create this exciting fusion. The Jewish Indian community is a mystery to many, and I appreciated that Sarah understood how similar Jewish and Indian value systems are. There is such a strong sense of love and respect in both cultures, and I was ultimately drawn to her desire to meld all these flavors in a song.
Team Be’chol Lashon: Who are the participants in the video?
Samuel: Music is life, and Bollywood is my heartbeat. I knew exactly whom I wanted to feature in the video, so I called upon professional dancers from my Indian Jewish community. The wonderful women appearing in the video were all very eager to be a part of and showcase the harmony of these different yet similar cultures. They are all contemporary dancers and I liked how they wanted to show Jewish Indian culture as it is today—fresh, contemporary, modern, and not idealized or old-fashioned as it is believed to be. I also wanted to feature Davina (Sankar) Bar, who epitomizes the look and spirit of a modern Indian Jewish woman. And for the choreographer, I just knew I had to have Salome Roy Kapur, a prominent dancer, theatre personality, and former Miss India 1972. And she’s Jewish! Around the same time, I was also working on a separate project with an Israeli documentary filmmaker, Oren Rosenfeld, on the Jewish Indian community. When we were in Mumbai filming that project, “Mumbai Jews,” we had an extra day and decided to film Sarah’s project to be part of the documentary. The stars were all aligned. Except for the fact that Sarah was in the U.S., we then had to figure out how to get her in the video, too!
Team Be’chol Lashon: Was it a challenge to film the video in multiple locations?
Aroeste: No, I think just the opposite. The joy of the Torah is celebrated all over the world, and dancing together as one big community, even across distant lands, is at the heart of the song. While Eddna arranged the entire production, choreography, and dancers in Mumbai, I was able to film on my own in America, and our editor, Yaniv Raphael Bar, masterfully put it all together as one communal dance.
Team Be’chol Lashon: What do you think this means for future artistic collaborations between the Indian Jewish community and other international ones?
Samuel: There is a growing interest for artistic collaborations. I believe you create and innovate when different people with different perspectives come together. I would like to thank Sarah for showing faith in us, the Indian Jewish community, and we are certain that both will benefit tremendously from working with one another.
Aroeste: So many possibilities! As one of the song’s lyrics says: Muy alto kantamos, our voices sing out loud. Our voices are stronger when we all sing together.
Sarah Aroeste is an international Ladino singer/songwriter, author, and cultural activist. Drawing upon her Sephardic family roots from Greece and Macedonia (via Medieval Spain), Aroeste is determined to help bring Judeo-Spanish culture to a new generation.
Eddna Samuel is a proud member of the Indian Jewish community of Mumbai. She is the director of Motif India, having two decades of experience in marketing, strategic communications, and brand positioning.