Yasmin Levy: Life, Ladino and liberty

After years of international success, the Israeli singer feels her latest album has led her on the road back home.

Yasmin Levy 370 (photo credit: Ali Taskiran)
Yasmin Levy 370
(photo credit: Ali Taskiran)
In recent years Ladino culture has had no greater exponent than an Israeli singer by the name of Yasmin Levy.
The acclaim has been high, the awards many and the nominations even more numerous. Yet this success has been predominantly outside of Israel, that is, until recently. Now Levy is enjoying the kind of prime time playlisting on Israeli national radio that heralds the return home of this much cherished daughter. The Jerusalem Post spoke to Levy on the eve of the release of her fifth album, Libertad, to discover how this road less travelled had now led her back home.
The name Levy may not turn any heads in most Ashkenazi Jewish circles when talking about music. However, in Ladino- speaking Sephardi communities it spans two generations to mean either Yitzhak or Yasmin.
Her father Yitzchak Levy is considered the most prolific researcher of Ladino song the world has seen in modern times. Born in Turkey in 1919 to a Ladino-speaking community, his family moved to mandate Jerusalem when he was three years old.
While growing up in Jerusalem he immersed himself and expressed everything that was around him.
Through music as a folk singer, in synagogue as a cantor, a broadcaster and academic, he worked tirelessly to express and search out as much as he could on his passion; the Ladino folk songs of the Sephardi Jewish community.
He amassed a treasure trove of books of music, notes, recordings and songs from feverishly running around with a reel-toreel tape recorder from living rooms to synagogues in Israel and Europe throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
Yitzhak documented the songs of the older generation before they were lost forever.
So it probably comes as no surprise that he was appointed head of the Ladino department at Israel’s National Radio.
However, tragedy struck when he passed away, aged only 57, when Levy was but a year old. Levy has done well to honor her father’s legacy, with a musical repertoire that has become a beating heart of the Sephardi cultural body, its volume ever louder upon the world stage.
Yet when asked about carrying the torch for Ladino song, despite the far-reaching acclaim, Levy modestly sets the record straight.
“For my father it was something that he worked all his life to do and to preserve. I would say what I do is less important than what he did. He saved those songs, while I bring them to people around the world because it is important keep to them alive.
This is my being, it’s who I am and it is this that is the fountain from which I create and sing.”
The new album is not as pronounced in Ladino identity as some of her previous albums. Within this album, the steady pulse of flamenco provides much of the backbeat, but the body of the album sweeps from the East with Turkish strings to the west with Cuban horns. However this is not a departure from her heritage, far from it. This is the detail of her ancestry, put to music.
“This album sees the Turkish strings put together with flamenco,” explains Levy.
“After the expulsion from Spain my father’s family went to live in Turkey for 500 years before they came to Israel. You have the influence of Spain where the songs come from and the you have the Turkish influence.”
This strikes a harmonious balance in the album. Apart from the self-evident harmony and counterpoint, the legacy of Andalus has often been regarded as a golden time between Jews and Arabs, and collaborative musical endeavours haven’t just been reserved for the blending of genres.
Levy has worked with other musicians such as flamenco star Buika on this album and with the celebrated Arabic singer Natascha Atlas on previous releases.
“I can use my voice and music to collaborate with people from different cultures or religions. When I do that, I share a respect with them, for their music, their talent, their way of life and their way of thinking.
When we collaborate we create an even bigger more colorful world than our own.”
This world view has earned her the attention of organizations wanting to formalize this. In 2006 the Ana Lindh foundation awarded her a prize for cross-cultural dialogue and the BBC simultaneously nominated her for the culture-crossing award in the coveted world music awards.
Yet far from being a political creature, I quizzed Levy about whether this blending of styles was in some way part of a cognitive process.
“I see more and more musicians collaborating and when I go to their concerts and listen to that music, I can hear it working.
I feel that when I do those things, the problems would start if I began thinking about the political aspect. I am just doing what my heart tells me. This what I feel, it is who I am and this is the same feeling in which I made the album.”
Levy’s previous albums have had their cultural mix firmly rooted in the Iberian frame. With this release the trans-Mediterranean mix is far more clearly stated, begging the question, is this album pulling east or west? “Both! With this album I was very curious about where I was going to take it and how I was going to sing it. Some of the songs I wrote have essentially a mainstream feel and this may frighten people because I have done so much ‘world music’ with its ethnicity and depth. But the two can live together and it’s about mutual respect, in music too.”
Levy was brought up in Jerusalem where this delicate balance of the ancient and modern, east and west and the convergence of continental schools of music was part of her environment.
“I grew up listening to so many different types of music: jazz, classical, opera, Arabic music, Spanish music and French chansons.
This mixture is who I am and you can hear it in my music. I get letters from people in Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and even Sweden, in which everybody says the same thing: that whenever they listen to my music they feel at home. I have so many different influences in my music, of so many different traditions and cultures, anyone can find something that belongs to them.”
Having recorded the album between Istanbul, Tel Aviv and London the international feel and collaborative DNA of the album isn’t simply a flight of fancy, it forms part of the story of its making as well as the heritage of the artist. The large, 60- string Turkish orchestra simply can’t go on the road with the band. Planes and hotels would have to be chartered with every date. However, Levy has it covered.
“In 2013 when I tour around the world I will be with a core of about five musicians plus I have the piano now, which I didn’t have before. I will also have some string musicians with me on stage for some of the dates and we will do everything we can to bring the sound of the album with us on stage.”
Yet what of the title of the album, Libertad, meaning freedom. How is this expressed and what does it mean for the future? “This album is called Libertad because now as a mother I feel totally free, in my soul. My liberty has arrived. I am going to celebrate this freedom I have found with my beautiful audience.”
Levy has travelled a long way to earn her liberty in this her fifth studio album. With that freedom she has now arrived to a homecoming welcome after having carved a solid reputation internationally. As a mother, a singer, a songwriter and a performer she has now graduated to strike the essential balance.
Although the feeling of yearning may not be so prevalent in this new album, the voyage of self-discovery is only just beginning and we have yet to witness what Levy’s freedom will express in the years that follow.