Yasmin Levy - inheriting the tradition

Yasmin Levy has no memories of her father, Yitzhak, and he would have disapproved wholly of her becoming a professional singer. And yet this musicologist, a towering figure in Levy’s Ladino tradition who died when Yasmin was only one year old in 1976, has been the guiding light in a career that has seen her take the previously little known songs of the Sephardic Jews to audiences around the world, introducing them through her daring arrangements to generations who might never have been interested in hearing them in the first place.


Yitzhak, or Isaac, Levy is a constant presence in his daughter’s conversation, as he is in her life. Born in Turkey, he became one of Israel’s leading cultural figures through collecting and annotating countless songs, both sacred and secular, that almost certainly wouldn’t otherwise be touching souls through his daughter’s performances today. The songs are essentially what’s keeping alive the Ladino language, which travelled with the Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Israel, via North Africa and the Balkans, after they were expelled from Iberia in 1492.


“People say that I’m the saviour of the language but that’s not true,” says Levy when I reach her on her mobile phone outside a shopping centre in Jerusalem. “I don’t speak Ladino; hardly anyone among the younger generations does because it became a kind of secret language. When parents wanted to talk about something they didn’t want their children to know about, they’d slip from Hebrew, which we all spoke, to Ladino. In a few years it will probably die out altogether as a spoken language and probably no-one can stop that because to keep a language going you have to live it. But we can keep the songs alive.”


Levy grew up hearing her father’s voice, through recordings that her mother played all the time, and says his presence and influence on her and her siblings’ lives was as if he was still alive. They were all encouraged to take up music – Yasmin began playing piano at the age of six and studied it for twelve years – but not as a profession. While her siblings went into law and engineering, her own dream was to become a vet. She even got as far as opening her own clinic but at twenty-one she decided to go against her father’s wishes.


“They say that the youngest child has the courage to disobey, so I decided to do something with all these songs we had in the family,” she says. “I wasn’t a natural Ladino singer. When you listen to people like my father, they sing very gently. I didn’t to begin with. I used to shout, trying too hard to prove myself, as you do when you’re younger.”


Drawn to flamenco because of its dramatic qualities, she moved to Spain and studied both flamenco dancing and singing. She loved the passion in flamenco and fused it with Ladino in an effort to create her own style. But after a while she realised that there were hundreds of singers in Spain who sang flamenco better and more naturally and that she should concentrate on the music that was in her heart – Ladino.


There is still, however, a Spanish influence on her career. In 2008, having released three well-received albums, she started to work with Spanish producer Javier Limon, the man behind the phenomenal success of fado singer Mariza and the less celebrated, at least in this country, but wonderful flamenco singer Concha Buika. The resulting album, Sentir, says Levy, marks the real beginning of her career as a singer.


“Before Sentir, I wasn’t really a singer,” she says. “I find it very difficult to listen to myself from recordings I made before that. Javier Limon helped me to find myself. I think because he’s an artist himself he knows how to approach working in a studio. He was incredibly encouraging and gave me self-confidence. I can actually pinpoint the concert when I felt the change. It was November 2008, in Germany, and I experienced this magical moment. It’s hard to explain but something happened on stage that night and I could almost hear my father saying, ‘Now you can be a singer.’”


By way of an electronically engineered “duet”, her father actually joined her on one track from Sentir, Una Pastora (A Shepherdess), which seamlessly matched his 1970s recording of the song with Yasmin’s voice. It was a ‘walking on eggshells experience’ and she’s not sure if he would have approved of that or the instrumentation and arrangements she has introduced to make Ladino songs, which were traditionally sung a cappella, more approachable to new listeners.


Older Ladino aficionados have tended to view her treatment of the old songs and the fact that she’s a woman performing onstage with some disdain. But having worked with musicians from Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel, as well as many other countries, she feels that fusing her own culture with other traditions is a viable way of preserving songs that are otherwise in danger of dying with the language.


“I may add new ideas in the arrangements and use instruments that are not traditionally associated with Ladino songs but I never change the lyric or the melody,” she says. “I value them too much. But I can still try and make them more interesting, take them on a journey, and all I ask is that people travel with me.”


From The Herald, January 2011.



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