Ladino - the language of the Sephardic Jews that originated in Spain prior to their expulsion in 1492 - is in danger of dying out. But there’s one young, passionate Israeli singer steeped in the tradition of European Jewish culture who is determined to reverse the decline, and her name is Yasmin Levy.
Yasmin: “Jews speak the language throughout Europe, but the people who speak it are fifty, sixty, seventy years old, and even they do not speak it as their everyday language. I say there is a big argument about the language, is it going to survive. I think that unfortunately forty years from now, people won’t speak this language and the only way for it to survive is through the Sephardic songs.”
Back in the UK with a tour to consolidate the success of her second album La Juderia (released last year on Connecting Cultures), Yasmin Levy’s love of her music and belief in the mission she has embarked on to preserve her tradition are as intense as the spells she has woven on her two solo albums.
The story of how she has come to lead the preservation of a vital tradition begins before she was even born: “My father, Isaac, was born in 1919 in Turkey and grew up in Jerusalem. He was a composer and cantor (singer). One day, he stayed at home with his mother, who started to sing a romance as she was cleaning, and my father decided to record the song. He was the first to realise that he needed to preserve the songs, to write them down. He went from one family to another, and he would record any family that would sing anything in the Ladino tradition. Then he would write down the lyrics and the melody, and it was important because the songs would have died with the people he recorded. Eventually, he managed to publish four books of romantic songs and ten books of liturgical songs.”
Isaac Levy was possibly as important to Ladino music as Alan Lomax was to American folk music, and his family’s work and influence on Yasmin did not end with his death, when Yasmin was under two years of age. “When my mother, Kochava married my father, she had the choice to sing or be a housewife. She chose to be a housewife and mother. But when my father died, she started to sing again.”
The osmosis was under way. Like many cultured Israelis past and present, there was no ‘if’ about cultural enlightenment through the arts, literature and music: “I started to play piano when I was six, and I would accompany my mother, so I had the songs in my head. At the age of seventeen, I went to Spain, to the Basque region, to a friend of my mother who is a singer (renowned singer and researcher Julia León). She says she has Jewish roots, and loves Ladino. She asked me to sing for her, because at the time she wanted to do a Sephardic album. I said no, but she argued with me and then she opened one of my father’s books and said ‘sing’, and I started to sing. She said to me ‘there are only two women who can sing like that - your mother and you’. She opened the window for me.”
After two years of national service, Yasmin Levy started to accompany her mother professionally and it was never going to be long before her raw, passionate voice was going to need its own space. Considering her youth and striking looks, it would have been understandable had she decided to become a pop singer. Instead, she decided to use the full expressive palette of her voice to articulate the emotive power of the songs her father recorded.
Her first album Romance and Yasmin in 2004 earned her a Best Newcomer nomination in the Radio 3 Awards for World Music, and was a remarkably original statement of her intent to bring her own ideas to this centuries-old music.
“When I did the first album, which is all Sephardic songs, I brought with me all Turkish instruments and arrangements because my father is Turkish, and he grew up on this music. It was quite obvious for me and natural the way I wanted to sound, to hear those songs. When I came out with this album, many people said ‘what’s she doing on it, she did Oriental and Turkish and Arabic’, because they used to play those songs with the guitar, in a very classical way. I said 'no, it’s impossible that they won’t have Turkish instruments - darbucka, oud, violin - it has to be like that'. Since then, I’ve heard many songs like that. Then I got to know flamenco. I obtained a scholarship to Seville. I went there for three months, which is nothing. I received the scholarship for three years but life took me to another place and I only did three months. I took what I could, though. But you have to live the lifestyle; people are learning flamenco from the age of three. You need to do it for five years at least. But I took what I could and did some flamenco arrangements for my follow-up CD. People argue with me whether it is flamenco music. I just want to experiment with the arrangements - I never touch the lyrics or the melody, they are not mine. I just put another outfit on the song. That’s why people like it. They say it sounds like flamenco, but it’s Ladino.”
That second album, La Juderia, was released in 2005, and certainly had a flamenco feel on many of the songs, whilst at the same time continuing to showcase mainly Ladino music. It managed to split opinion, with many purists from both camps objecting to the crossover, although it seems to have broadened Levy’s appeal with a younger audience. The familiar flourishes of Andalusian guitar certainly bring a welcome lighter touch to a very powerful concert performance, and that is also winning over new audiences. “I think flamenco is more difficult to play because of the rhythm - it’s a way of expressing, a way of life. It’s very difficult to sing. Ladino is simple, anyone can sing it but you still have to feel it, like flamenco. It’s music from the street.”
That marriage of styles is all of a piece with Yasmin’s whole approach to her culture and the way it brings people together: “I tell myself that my music is a big thing, bringing people together. My band comes from all parts of the world. I have Armenian and Turkish people with me in the band when I have concerts and they are like brothers. I have members from the UK, Persia (Iran) and even Chile. Everybody says music is another language, it is international. I work with Muslims and Christians, and I am Jewish. I work with Germans and I am Israeli. This is what music means to me in life.”
We’ll have to wait till 2007 for the third album, but if Yasmin has her way, it’ll certainly be well worth waiting for. “I haven’t decided what to do for my next album yet. I want to do some Ladino songs, but I also want to do something completely different. I have a small dream to go to Turkey, to have thirty musicians, a big orchestra, to do a big and heavy Sephardic album - I have to do it, to go back to where my father was born and record in the most traditional way!”
Somehow, one suspects that the pressure will be on Yasmin Levy to do something a bit different to that, to continue to accentuate the cross-cultural similarities between the familiar (flamenco and other European forms) and the traditional. Whatever she decides, there’s little doubt as to what will be the motivation behind it.
“Because the language of Ladino is dying, I see my job as more than the music. It is like a holy mission. I have to do it, I see myself as a butterfly going from one flower to another spreading the knowledge of the tradition, because if I don’t do it, there are very few singers who can. And I know that for the rest of my life - even though I know I will do other songs, my own and others - I will continue to sing Ladino songs. For the Jewish people, my father and the world.”
This review was first published on Fly:-