Rising world star

The world's best known Ladino singer is an Israeli - and she's coming to Tel Aviv this week.

Yasmin Levy 224.155 (photo credit: )
Yasmin Levy 224.155
(photo credit: )
Yasmin Levy is getting bigger all the time. The 32-year-old Ladino singer has just put out a highly acclaimed third album, Mano Suave (Gentle Hand), which is selling well across Europe. She is about to set off on a six-month tour that will include the Sydney Opera House as well as concerts in London, Paris, Russia, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria. Before setting off on this latest foray abroad, Levy will perform material from her new album at the Tel Aviv Opera House on Tuesday night. She has come a long way since taking her first tentative steps into the entertainment world at the relatively late age of 24. "Yes, I have been through quite a lot, and I think I've grown - both as a person and as an artist," said Levy with typical candor when we met in a Jerusalem café this week. "When I listen to Mano Suave I hear a woman singing, not a girl or someone trying to make an impression on her listeners. I hear someone who has been through a process and matured. This is me." In truth, Levy had a lot to live up to. Her father Yitzhak, who died when Levy was only 18 months old, was a pioneer in perpetuating the Ladino heritage here, and a fine singer himself. "When I was younger I thought I was great. I was very young on that first [Ladino] album [Romance & Yasmin]. But you know, in my family you have to work hard to earn kudos. You get criticized and pulled to pieces. So when you get some praise you know you've earned it. I always hear my father in my head, telling me what I should be doing and laughing; he is very much a part of my life." Her mother, Kokhava, is also a singer of some repute, although she rarely performs in public. "My mother gives me a lot of support and love," says Levy. "I couldn't do all this without her." In fact, "all this" is a lot, by any standard. Levy spends much of her time outside Israel, having built up a fan base around the globe, as well as achieving critical acclaim. She also spent several months in Spain honing her flamenco singing skills. However, Levy's frustraction over her flamenco learning curve eventually convinced her she should stick to her own roots. "I spent three months in Spain and I thought I could sing flamenco as well as anyone. I now realize that I am just not good at that, and that I never will be. I am not from Spain; that is not my culture." Levy's Ladino culture spreads right around the Mediterranean, and her new album appropriately incorporates Turkish inflections, Spanish motifs and some Andalusian intent. Surprisingly, there is also a Beduin song. "I feel very close to Arab culture too," says the singer, who joined forces with Anglo-Egyptian songstress Natasha Atlas for the occasion. "She is a wonderful singer. I would love to be able to sing in Arabic like her some day." Intriguingly, Levy does not sing in Hebrew. "Yes, that is my mother tongue but, for some reason, I don't feel comfortable about doing material in Hebrew. I don't know why that is. Maybe I feel I can hide behind Spanish and Ladino - who knows?" Levy says part of her growing process means that she is more in control than she once was. "It's a bit of a conundrum. I feel more confident as to who I am now, but that is for the stage. That's where I really let it all hang out. But it is a different story in the studio." Mano Suave was recorded in London, and Levy says she went through the wringer until she got it right. "I asked [producer] Lucy Duran to be a police officer, and be tough with me. On my first album I was just a kid, and on my second I sang from here," she says, raising her hand high above her head. "When I got the first recordings I couldn't believe it. I was so disappointed. I felt it just didn't come out right. I cried for an hour and insisted on going back to the studio and doing things over." Levy's dogged persistence appears to have paid of, with Mano Suave clearly a more rounded and polished effort than its predecessors. "I feel I am getting closer to the right balance," says Levy, "but I'm not there yet. Maybe when I'm 50 I'll get on the stage in jeans and I won't care whether the audience likes what I am doing or not." Tuesday, 9 p.m., at TAPAC - Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, 19 Shaul Hamelech St., (03) 692-7777, NIS 100-150.