Yasmin Levy talks Ladino music, her Judaeo-Spanish heritage and singing with her late father
With her haunting howls and Ladino-laced songs, Judaeo-Spanish singer Yasmin Levy brings new life to her ancestral songs.
“I grew up in Jerusalem,” she said by phone recently. “It’s a melting pot with people from all over the world listening to different music, smelling all kinds of smells, tasting foods; this mixture is who I am. I am an Israeli. I’m Turkish. I’m Spanish. I am a human being. All those traditions are inside of me.”
Her 2009 album Sentir pulls from a wide range of influences, from Edith Piaf to Billie Holiday to Tina Turner. It includes Una Pastora, an Unforgettable-style duet with her father, celebrated Israeli cantor and composer Isaac Levy, who died in the mid-’70s.
On March 3, Levy performs at the Straz Center For the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $29.50; click here to purchase. We caught up with her by phone to talk about her unique heritage and the culture of Ladino music.
Explain Ladino music to me.
Ladino is the songs of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. The song is the only thing they took with them from Spain. Everything they had in life, they sang about. The language, the song, the memories were all passed orally from generation to generation. Mothers sang secular songs to their daughters at home and men sang them to their sons in synagogues. The traditional is a cappella. Those songs were never meant to be on stage. They are pure soul songs, very beautiful and very innocent. The way I do it is not the traditional way. I mix them with flamenco, Turkish, Cuban, and Arabic sounds to make it interesting.
How did you become a Ladino musician?
Because of my father and mother. My father was a cantor, musician and considered to be the person who saved the Sephardi song from dying and disappearing. No one ever wrote down lyrics and he was the one who realized someone has to collect and preserve the lyrics and melody. He devoted his life to it. My Mom is a Ladino singer.
You sing Ladino, but do you speak it?
No one in my generation speaks Ladino. It’s an endangered language. Everyone who speaks it is 70 and 80 years old. In my opinion, two generations from now, it will die and disappear. The only thing to survive will be the songs, and that why it’s a mission to spread it as much as I can, and also a way to love my father since he passed when I was 1.
How do you write songs, or are they all traditional?
When I sing in Ladino, all the songs are traditional, and done with great respect and responsibility. Ladino is holy and I don’t want to touch it. It’s important for me to write and compose my own songs. I do it in Spanish so I can have total freedom, get wild and express myself without thinking about responsibility and tradition.
How was it to sing “with” your father on Una Pastora?
It was very difficult because I adore him I had to see myself as an equal singer and I could never see that. It took me many times until told myself “it’s ok, he’s dead, don’t be afraid, you’re not comparing yourself to him, you’re not disrespecting him.” It was like he was with me in the studio. We used a 50-year-old recording.
How many languages do you speak?
Hebrew, English, Spanish, a little bit of French and I write and read Arabic.
What’s the last music you listened to?
The oldest Turkish songs, the traditional ones that young Turkish people don’t even listen to. For me it makes me fly.
What’s the most difficult part about doing what you do?
Nothing. I have a great fear in my life accompanying me wherever I go. I sing, perform, and create and there is always this fear that it will stop one day and end and they won’t like to listen to me anymore. Other musicians have this fear as well.
Where would you be if you couldn’t sing?
Oh my God (gasps). I would be sad. I would be the saddest person ever. I think I would help animals.
What is your message?
I give myself totally. I commit suicide on stage. No masks, no borders, it’s as if I’m almost naked. I put myself in the in the hands of people. I want people to open their hearts so they might discover a beautiful world.
How do you want to be remembered?
I hope to be remembered as a good human being; as a person who believed in tolerance, who respects people for who they are, not judging or trying to change them. That’s why I collaborate with people from around the world, because I respect and believe in them. I believe in live and let live.
-- Stephanie Bolling, tbt*