Yasmin Levy uniting the Middle East in her music
Yasmin Levy is undoubtedly one of the most significant representatives of Ladino music, with her fascinating, lugubrious voice so much in harmony with her Middle Eastern and flamenco-style melancholic tunes.
Levy was in İstanbul this week to sing songs from her recent album, “Sentir.”
Her roots come from the Sephardic Jews who traveled from Spain to Turkey and from Turkey to Israel, and Levy has managed to blend all the elements her family has encountered in their long-lasting journey. Trying to keep the Ladino tradition alive, Levy was also named a goodwill ambassador for Children of Peace in 2008 and was presented with the Anna Lindh Award for promoting cross-cultural dialogue in March 2006.
Levy was in İstanbul for a live performance last Monday at the Salon concert hall in the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art’s (İKSV) newly inaugurated building in Şişhane. Levy spoke to Sunday’s Zaman in an interview ahead of her performance.
You have Spanish, Middle Eastern and Turkish elements in your music. How did your family’s roots influence your music?
I’m Sephardic; I’m from the Jews who lived in Spain. Five hundred years ago the Spanish rulers threw the Jews and Muslims out because Spain became Christian. The Jews went all over the world; my family came to Turkey. So, we have been here for 500 years. And I grew up listening to Turkish music. Turkey for me is my family and my home. I grew up listening to many kinds of music, and the music I grew up listening to first of all was Orhan Gencebay, all my life … and then İbrahim Tatlıses. … Ömer Faruk Tekbilek is my friend. I have listened also to classical music, flamenco, jazz and Arabic music because when you grow up in Jerusalem, you listen to all kinds of music. In Jerusalem, there are Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, people from all over the world. I smelled all the smells of the food, I saw all the traditions, I listened to all kinds of music. So all this mixture is why I’m here today.
What about the influence of the place you were born?
Bakaa, it’s the heart of Jerusalem. As I said, I grew up with Arabs. Those songs I sing, the traditional songs, they were born in Spain, then they had a long journey of hundreds of years. For example, since my family went to Turkey, you have a Turkish influence in this music. Then they went to Israel, then you have the influence of Jerusalem. I bring all these influences into my music. So you find Turkish elements, flamenco elements, now an element of Cuba. I play with the music, I do whatever I feel. I don’t have any rules, just what my heart feels.
When did your family immigrate to Israel? And where were they living in Turkey?
When my father was 3 years old, in 1922. They were living in Manisa.
Your previous albums mostly had Ladino-Turkish influences and Ladino-flamenco. In your most recent album, there seems to be a balance between styles.
Some of them are new songs, some of them are traditional. It’s important for me to bring Ladino songs because it’s my father, it’s my language, my heritage. And the Ladino language is an endangered language; I don’t speak Ladino, I speak Spanish, and the people who do speak it are now 70 or 80 years old. So, 15 years from now, since my generation no longer speaks Ladino, no one will speak it because these people will die. We’re talking about 150,000 people who speak Ladino today. When they die, the language will die. So the only things that will survive from this tradition are those songs. For every album, it’s important for me to bring traditional songs — Ladino; half of the songs on the album are in Spanish, which I wrote or someone wrote for me, and there’s one cover. So it’s a balance; singing traditional songs is great, this is my mission, it’s my life, but as an artist you want to express yourself as well, so I write my songs. It’s important for me to bring my music as well.
In your previous albums music and harmony play a more central role, while in this album more emphasis is placed on the lyrics and your vocal performance. Was this planned?
I became a real singer in November 2008. Before then, I wasn’t a singer, I thought I was a singer. It’s something that you experience within yourself. I was on stage in Germany, and there was a very magical moment. I was singing closing my eyes, and something happened technically. And I said to myself: “This is it! Now you’re a singer! Only now, after three albums.” Then I went on to record this album. Maybe this is it. I came more as a singer, I have more to say or maybe I knew how to sing. I’m less melodic when I sing. And I thought it was a problem, so I went to Javier Limón, the producer. I said: “Javier, people say I speak. And I have to sing.” He said, “No.” “You speak, you sing, you do whatever you feel.”
But for example, there is “La Alegria,” which is such a powerful song…
This is the song of my life. I think it’s the strongest song that I’ve ever written. It’s all about sadness. I’m a very happy person with the biggest sadness in my heart. I cannot sing happy songs. Even if I do, it’s for the audience, not for me.
What about the title of the album, “Sentir”?
In every album, you look for a name, for a title. You may take one of the songs you feel is strong and then use the name of the song as the title of the album. All you want to do is explain the spirit of the album, like “La Juderia,” I wanted people to go to Spain with my music. In “Romance and Yasmin,” I did romances, I recorded Ladino songs. In “Sentir,” I was thinking about a name for months. And then I said, I don’t want to explain anything, I don’t want to spoon-feed you my music. I bring you the music, and you feel whatever you feel. I can’t tell you what to feel. Then I said, “to feel!” Sentir is to feel. I said that’s the name, that’s it!
The album also includes a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” Would you ever think of singing a duet with Cohen?
No. First of all this song is very difficult for me because it’s not my kind of music. I love Leonard Cohen, but I was looking for one song that people would know because I bring them old songs, all my songs, so I said, “I need one for people to rest,” because it’s too much information. My manager asked me, “Why don’t you sing ‘Hallelujah’?” I said, “Come on, it’s Leonard Cohen!” And he said, “Try to make it your own.” I listened to it again and again and again and again. Then I realized “Hallelujah” is Hebrew. It means praise the Lord. It’s what [Muslims] say in the mosque, it’s what I say in the synagogue, it’s what Christians say in churches. I said, I will bring [together] these religious elements, and I feel very comfortable with this song. Leonard gave me his personal blessing because he had asked people not to record “Hallelujah” anymore since everybody had recorded it. No one has done it in flamenco style, so he gave me his blessing. He hasn’t listened to it yet, but let’s see.
You have dedicated the song “Porque” to the children of the Middle East. Do you believe music can play a role in establishing peace and dialogue?
Music will not change the world. I’m a singer, I’m a musician, and no one is going to make peace because there is music. But, for example, there are many Palestinians who will never speak to me because I’m Israeli. Not because they don’t like Yasmin, but what I represent. Now, they love me, at least that’s what they say about my music. They listen to my music, and when you bring music, it’s all about love. Music is love, it’s about sharing. When they listen to me, it’s the only way that we can communicate, through my music. I have worked with Armenian musicians and Turkish musicians. They appeared on the same stage with me and my music, they hugged each other, thanks to music. So music is a language where there are no borders. I don’t even have to speak to you with words, you play, I sing, that’s it! I’ve always worked, all my life, with Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, this is what I believe. It does not mean that I come to you and say: “Are you a Muslim? Let’s work.” It’s not [the way it works]. It’s you, the person. I’m never going to say that I don’t want to work with you because you’re not like me. We have to share, we have to open ourselves up.
And children need more hope and communication…
A few weeks ago, I did a workshop with Israelis and Arabs; Palestinian students in Israel. Fifteen-year-old boys and girls. … And I saw them all like one person. They were so much together and I envied [them]. If I was 15 and if I had a chance to learn, to study with Arabs and to speak Arabic, it would be the greatest gift for me, because then you can speak. And I think these children are the beginning of the solution. They are my hope. … There are good people in this world. And that’s what I want to tell them.
Do you intend to work with Turkish musicians?
One of the biggest dreams I have is to come to Turkey for one of my albums, to play with the biggest Turkish orchestra that I can, to bring my Jewish songs to play with Muslim, Turkish musicians and to have Christian vocals. This is the biggest project that I’m going to achieve. But … it will take some time.