Breathing New Life into Ladino music

Israeli singer Yasmin Levy was inspired by the work of her late musicologist father.

Everything old is new again – just ask singer Yasmin Levy.

Levy, 35, has been touring the world, bringing 500-year-old Jewish Ladino music to sell-out audiences eager to hear the lyrical sounds of these ancient, emotionally penetrating Sephardic melodies.

Ladino is the name given to the now almost-extinct group of languages spoken by Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Rather than face conversion to Christianity, these Jews dispersed to the Mediterranean, North Africa and Turkey.

“Wherever the Spanish Jews lived, they combined old Spanish (Castilian) with the local dialects to form Ladino,” Levy told the CJN by phone from Israel. “Ladino music and poetry was passed down orally from father to son and from mother to daughter.”

The Jewish Federation of Cleveland is bringing Israeli-born Levy to Siegal College on Tues., Feb. 22, for the “Meet the Artist: Yasmin Levy – The History & Music of Ladino” workshop. She will also appear at The Cleveland Museum of Art on Wed., Feb. 23, at 7:30.
Levy is the daughter of musicologist, composer, singer and poet Yitzhak Levy, whose family is descended from the Spanish exiles of 1492. Recognizing how important it was to preserve the culture before it disappeared, Yitzhak visited the remaining elderly Ladino speakers in Israel to record songs that had never been written down. He ultimately published 14 volumes of old Ladino music and many recordings and is credited with having saved Ladino music from extinction.

Levy grew up hearing this centuries-old music “almost at birth,” she says. “My father died when I was 1, but the music he treasured and recorded, that my mother constantly sang so well, was deeply woven into my being early on.”

Although she sang with her mother, who raised five children alone, Levy never considered becoming a professional singer until she realized how “holy” the Ladino musical tradition was and how uniquely positioned she was to keep it alive. Her sensuous, sultry voice, which one critic wrote “can melt the walls of your heart,” is ideally suited for Ladino’s deep, poignant melodies.

Levy assumed the great “responsibility” to spread and preserve the endangered music. “From the very beginning, this has been a sacred, sentimental mission for me,” she says. As persecuted Jews fled Spain, the only thing they could keep with them “was their language,” Levy explains. “Ladino songs reflect the Spanish Jews’ yearning for their old life, as well as love, passion and hope.”

When Levy entered the music scene, she insisted the genre be called “world music” rather than Jewish music so it would appeal to broader audiences. As her fame spreads, including sold-out concerts throughout Europe and the Middle East, she cannot believe how quickly she has achieved musical prominence.

“Ten years ago, Ladino music was dying and only being studied by a few scholars,” she says. Now the music has captured the attention of millions of people from all religions, nationalities and lifestyles. The Jerusalem native infuses some of the music with her own interpretation. Her four award-winning albums intertwine Ladino rhythms with gypsy, Middle Eastern and flamingo melodies.

The exotic, raven-haired Levy has been asked to take time off her busy international touring schedule to teach Ladino music. “First, I must spread the music as widely as possible,” she insists. “The teaching will come later.”

The performer, who is expecting her first child in June, remains very close to her family roots. Her mother Kohava Levy has just recorded her first album of Ladino songs at age 65. “She has a golden voice, and it’s wonderful she is fulfilling her dream to perform, something she gave up when she married my father,” Levy says.

During her performances, the singer feels she is never far from home. “I know my father is with me,” she says. “When I am on stage, I have a strong feeling he is standing right beside me, sharing his musical memories, as I sing our ancestral songs. I am living his life.”

WHAT: Yasmin Levy – The History & Music of Ladino Culture

WHEN: Tues., Feb. 22, at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Siegal College

TO REGISTER: 216-593-2908

WHAT: Yasmin Levy in Concert

WHEN: Wed., Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: The Cleveland Museum of Art



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