Songs of Longing, Sung from the Heart
Yasmin Levy is explaining how she nearly became the new Shakira. At her home on the outskirts of Jerusalem, she plays an unreleased demo she recorded two years ago, very expensively, with Sting’s producer, Kipper. It’s a bombastic power ballad a million miles away from the low-key Sephardic folk music she usually makes. She and her husband, Ishay, are laughing as they sing along to it, playing air drums and swaying their hands in the air.
“Ha, ha, I think it’s great!” she giggles. “But it’s not very me, is it?”
Two years ago, Levy was approached by the president of Decca. He had delved into world music and seen this Mediterranean singer with raven hair, pillow lips, enormous brown eyes and a remarkable voice that can switch from deep and husky to high and operatic. He made a plan to take the ancient Sephardic Jewish ballads she sang and polish them for a pop audience, with Levy singing in modern Spanish, rather than the medieval Jewish variant of Spanish called Ladino. But a corporate reshuffle at Universal – Decca’s parent company – caused the cancellation of several projects, including Levy’s.
“They had big plans,” she says. “They wanted to market it in Spain and Latin America as a big pop record. But I have to say that I was more relieved than disappointed that it didn’t happen. I don’t think I’d have made a very convincing pop star. It’s not really what I do.”
Levy still does what she did before her flirtation with pop: she revives music and lyrics written in Ladino, an ancient form of Spanish leavened with Arabic, Turkish, Balkan and Greek. It’s the language spoken by Sephardic Jews, who were banished from Spain in 1492 to other parts of the Mediterranean. It is also one of the world’s most endangered tongues – today, there are fewer than 200,000 Ladino speakers.
A few hours earlier, Levy was showing me around Ohel Moshe, a quiet neighbourhood near the bustling Judah market in Jerusalem’s new city. It’s a few streets of modest, picturesque bungalows, many built more than a century ago. “This is where my father’s family came in the 1920s,” she says proudly.
Several plaques on the walls commemorate Sephardic families who arrived in the first decades of the 20th century. Levy’s father, Yitzhak, takes pride of place, being displayed even more prominently than the fifth prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Navon, who lived a few doors down.
To understand Levy’s music, you have to look to her father. She barely knew Yitzhak Levy – he was 27 years older than her mother and died, aged 57, when Yasmin was a year old – but he cast a long shadow over her life. Born in Turkey in 1919, Yitzhak moved to Jerusalem when he was three. He worked as a broadcaster, cantor, academic and folk singer, but his main occupation was tirelessly collecting the folk songs of the Sephardic Jewish community, in particular those sung in Ladino.
“He’d ask old women to sing songs they learned when they were children. He would see how these same ancient lullabies and ballads had been developed differently by Jews in Bulgaria or Turkey.” Near Yasmin’s childhood home is a warehouse containing thousands of books, notes and song transcriptions that Yitzhak accumulated over the years. “What I have tried to do is bring his research to life. There are other people who sing Ladino music, but they sing it from the head, academically. I like to sing it from the heart, with the passion of a flamenco singer.”
On her 2005 album, La Juderia, she made this flamenco connection explicit, arranging Ladino songs with a flamenco backing. She speaks fluent Spanish, has spent time in Andalusia, and teamed up with Gypsy musicians for the project – but many flamenco purists thought it an unconvincing fusion.
“There’s this idea that you have to be a Gypsy to play flamenco,” she says.
“That’s nonsense, of course – the greatest flamenco guitarist of all, Paco de Lucia, is not a Gypsy, and all the Gypsies love him. But I can understand that kind of purism. It’s not about blood or race, it’s about culture. I feel it with Ladino music. Anyone can sing these Ladino songs, but it is not just the words on the page. It’s the food you eat, it’s the furniture in your family home, it’s your mother shouting at you. It’s something that becomes close to your heart.”
To this end, her latest album, Mano Suave, marks a return to her Ladino roots, but the dalliance with a big label has changed her attitude towards recording. Levy self-produced her first two albums; this time she enlisted two producers, the BBC radio broadcaster and musicologist Lucy Duran and the veteran engineer and producer Jerry Boys, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to Buena Vista Social Club.
“You need strong producers you can trust,” she says, “people who aren’t afraid to criticise you.
“A lot of the time it’s about not over-singing. Sometimes I’m inclined to sing flashy and high-pitched just because I can. Having a producer convinces you that that’s not always necessary. Sometimes, when you’re a singer, technique can be a mask, and you have to remove all masks when you’re singing.”
She likes “big voices” – people such as Maria Callas, the Portuguese fado singer Mariza, Kurdish folk hero Ibrahim Tatlises (“he sounds like he’s crying”), flamenco vocalist Miguel Poveda (“he sings with the sensibility of a woman”) and, most remarkably, the high-pitched Spanish warbler Antonio Molina (“he sings like he has a bird in his throat”).
Levy’s own music incorporates touches of all these influences and has always involved a multicultural cast: the Egyptian star Natacha Atlas features on Mano Suave, while her bands have featured Spaniards, Iranians, Turks, Greeks, Armenians and even a Paraguayan harp player. The themes of displacement and longing seem universal: on Mano Suave’s opening track, Irme Kero, she sings, “Mother I long for Jerusalem/ to taste its fruit and drink its water/ The master of the world shelters and comforts me”.
She plans an ambitious project in which she will be accompanied by a big Turkish classical orchestra and a Christian choir. “Ideally, I want to unite Judaism, Christianity and Islam through Ladino music. This is an art form that has travelled around through vast stretches of Europe, North Africa and Arabia and still survives. It is true world music.”