Who The Folk?! Sarah Larsson

Sarah Larsson met her fellow Nightingale Trio collaborators when they were singing together in Yale’s Slavic Chorus, and six years after graduating, they are still going strong. They play this coming Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center after an 18-month hiatus where they debut two new arrangements of Jewish songs. Learn all about Larsson, her recent Jewish journey, and how much of what she does ties to her love of anthropology in this week’s Who The Folk?!

Are you from here originally or relocated here?

My family is all from the East Coast, and we were living in Massachusetts when I was born, but moved here when I was a little kid. I grew up in Excelsior.

The Nightengale Trio met while at Yale; where you always interested in singing?

I didn’t go to Yale for that, but we all have fun, different stories of how we ended up doing folk music. For me I grew up singing to myself as a kid, and then sang in the Minnetonka Chamber Choir. That was a huge part of my life, but it was a strict, traditional Western choir. I always loved “world music,” whatever that means. When I got to Yale, my roommate suggested we go to this concert that had a bunch of acapella groups. I didn’t want to sing pop acapella. Then this group came on stage wearing embroidered shirts singing this Macedonian folk song and I’m like “Who are they? I love this.” And it was the Yale Slavic Chorus. Ultimately Rachel and Nila and I all found this group and sang in it.

What did you study at Yale?

I studied anthropology. I’m interested in different cultures and traditions.

So the major works with both your day job and your singing.


You’re into a variety of cultures.

I grew up immersed in that. It was something my parents instilled in us. The world is really big and there’s a ton of different humans doing different things. And Minnesota is an amazing place for this. We grew up going to Haitian Festivals, and we had good friends who are Sikh so we went to their Gudwara. I like chitchatting with people. Anthropology is a good vehicle for getting to hang out and call it scholarship.

So is journalism. But how did your singing mates decide to continue together after college? When did you graduate?

Rachel and I were both undergrads then and Nila was in law school, but the timing happened so we all graduated in 2012. For me, what I’ve been interested in recently is why are we drawn to this subculture community.

You perform in 14 languages?

Something like that.

How do you keep it straight?

We don’t necessarily speak those languages. In 2014, we were on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Garrison Keillor comes up to Nila and asks how her Macedonian is. We don’t know Macedonian. We learn the songs phonetically. At this point we all know a lot of vocabulary because they recur throughout the music and a lot of the languages share roots.

Similar to how French, Spanish and Italian have similar roots.

Yeah. We kind of gather the music and are drawn to songs because of the aesthetic and the story, not because we can understand word for word. When we perform, we take translations and present them like a story so people understand.

Like an opera, the meaning is conveyed through the song even if you don’t understand the language.


The show at the Cedar is the first for a while; why the hiatus?

It was prompted by Nila going overseas with her husband for a year on a religious studies program. They are Hindu.

You have new pieces that are debuting, right?

We got funding from the Brin Endowment to use that to collaborate with two women composers to arrange new three-part harmony arrangements for two folk songs. Picked a tune that was preserved by Flory Jagoda from Sarajevo, who’s published songbooks. It’s in Ladino – a fun flirty song about a marriage proposal. Then there’s a song in Yiddish that Ethel Ryan has been teaching for a long time. They are completely new original arrangements from Eastern European Jewish tradition.

So two Jews and a Hindu are singing Eastern European folk music?

Yeah. It’s pretty great.

So what are the 14 languages?

Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Croat, Bosnian, Hungarian – I’m picturing a map in my mind –  Czech, Polish, Romanian, Yiddish, Ladino, Ukrainian, Russian, and… what did I miss? Georgian. That’s it.

A lot are Slavic languages not all. Hungarian is in the languages category that contains Hungarian, Estonian and Finnish. Hungarian is really hard to sing in. Our pronunciation is pretty bad. We’re crossing our fingers that native speakers aren’t in the audience, which really isn’t true; we’re working with master singers and natives of the country.

Do you ever get a hard time because your pronunciation may be off and it changes the meaning?

Every so often. There’s a lot of really beautiful communities of people who are immigrants from those countries. Here there are a lot of Ukrainians and the people I’ve met are just thrilled. We’ve had amazing experiences connecting with immigrant communities in all the cities we’ve toured in each of our hometowns. When we go, we try to reach out to those spots.

It’s complicating because there’s a lot of geo-politics in eastern Europe. Someone wrote to us in an email that in one song we pronounced [a word] with a hard G than a soft G, and it’s more the Russian pronunciation than Ukrainian. We have to work hard to respond. In that case, I wrote back and said that song is from Ukraine but from a Russian speaking village and I had worked on people from the region to figure out where it was from based on the accent. That’s why it was pronounced that way. We’re building relationships by being sensitive to those things.

When did you start working at the Somali Museum?

I’ve been at the Somali museum since shortly after the founding of it. It was founded by Osman Ali, who’s this amazing entrepreneur and community leader. He was coming at it from a place of Somali kids here needing to find their roots. He collected cultural artifacts and brought them back to present them to the community. He was driving around with a box of priceless artifacts in his van. I got so inspired that I started working with him. I’ve been his sidekick for a number of years.

How many shows do you hope to play this year?

We’ve typically done a tour every two months. Usually a packed long weekend were we do five or six shows, including a community center, senior center, we’ll do church services in the morning and a show Saturday night.

Two Jews and Hindu doing a church service is pretty awesome.

A lot of the liturgical music is so beautiful and I find a lot of meaning in those songs even though not being from that tradition, the music being lifted up with that kind of intention and meaning means a lot to me.

Did you grow up at a synagogue?

No. My folks came from the perspective of “embrace everything.” My dad’s family were non-Jewish New Englanders and both were active in their Presbyterian church. My mom’s parents were pretty disconnected from a religious community. Both were born here and had disconnected childhoods, so neither passed on a spiritual community, although my mom was bat mitzvahed, can read Hebrew and lead prayers on holidays, but “you’re on your own” towards me and my brother. It’s prompted me to want to dig in and learn more. The music comes a little bit of that seeking of a connection. I have my own brand of ecumenical spirituality, but then digging into more roots stuff through the music is a way to learn stories of the Eastern European world my great-grandparents came from.

Being an anthropologist, it feels like it all ties together.

The stories and we all use our imagination a little bit. We don’t know what it’s like but I like to pretend I’m from there, even so many generations removed. I still connect to it.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

I feel like I’m going to deflect, but I’m still cultivating a sense of the calendar of holidays, in the sense that not having grown up with it shaping the arc of my year, I’m intentionally putting myself in that flow of things. This past year was the first time I’ve attended High Holiday services – I went to Shir Tikvah. And I go there for Shabbat services sometimes. Since being in a relationship with the current boyfriend, I’m trying integrate my own version of Shabbat. Friday: goodbye work. I go home, take a walk in the park and breathe the air. If I go to services, I go to services; if not, I say prayers my own way, and make a dinner for friends. On Saturday, I have an unplanned day and follow the whims of the world.

Favorite Jewish Food?

Bagels. That’s a real part of my family growing up: Bagels as comfort food.

Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!