Performing Arts Preview: Yasmin in Her Own Words

Israeli singer Yasmin Levy, who premiers the music of her Ladino heritage on the museum’s VIVA! & Gala Performing Arts series, is beholden to her father, ethnomusicologist Yitzhak Levy. She lost him at age one, inheriting 14 volumes of Ladino songs her father had collected from families of Sephardic or Judeo-Spanish extraction. Below, in her own words, Levy describes her connection to the music and her passion for it. Yasmin Levy Q: Why have you made it your mission to represent Ladino culture in your music? A: Ladino songs are more than 500 years old, and were passed down orally from generation to generation. My father used to go from one Sephardic family to another recording every person who had something to sing. Some were so old that they couldn't control their voices, but because he was a musician he was able to interpret the melody and lyrics.When I was 17, I went to see a friend of my mother who was recording a Sephardic album. She wanted me to record some old songs, but I didn't think I knew them until she showed me one of my father's books. Now I think I'll do this kind of music for as long as I live, because I'm one of the few people who can sing Ladino. It's a dying language, and that's why it's so important to help preserve it. Q: What’s the relationship between Spanish Flamenco and Ladino music? A: In Spain, the Jews left behind the voice of the cantor—the Haza—while Muslims contributed the Muezzin's prayer from the mosques. When the gypsies arrived from India they amalgamated the two vocal forms, and Flamenco emerged. When I was in Seville I spent time in “La Juderia” [the Jewish quarter]. I felt at home there, and when I sang Ladino songs to my Flamenco teacher Paco Taranto, he said he thought I'd returned to Spain. It became a mission to show that the roots of Flamenco were based in religious Jewish songs. Q: What are some of the complexities of your career as a Ladino vocalist? A: My father came from Turkey and so the original arrangements for these songs are Turkish. It was one of the first countries to welcome Jews with open arms, and they lived in peace for 500 years. So, all of a sudden I came along with uds and kanuns [Near Eastern lute and zither], and insisted this was the way the music should be played. [The music was previously played in Israel on European instruments.] It didn't necessarily endear me to the Sephardic community, but still I had 20-year-olds coming to my concerts who had nothing to do with this culture, and it was amazing. Jerusalem is old and tired, and sad, but I grew up in this town, and I couldn't be anywhere else. I'm happy to work with Palestinian musicians; I think it's very important, it's our duty. I think music is the only common language. We like each other, we respect each other, and we can learn from each other. Of course the conflict affects us all. But I really hope it will change someday. People ask me why my music is so sad and dramatic; I say that I like sad songs and sad music. Although I have this huge sadness that I have no explanation for, I say to myself that if I ever changed I would never be able to write the same way again. On Wednesday, February 23 at 7:30 p.m. in her Cleveland debut, Ms. Levy is accompanied by Ishay Amir, percussion; James Cuthbertson, guitar; Miles Danso, bass; and Vardan Hovanissian, clarinet, duduk, zurna. Listen to Yasmin Levy now. Purchase tickets to Yasmin Levy now. -- Kesha Williams


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