Israeli singer Yasmin Levy was born in Jerusalem into a musical family. She started playing piano when she was six but didn’t take music seriously until she was 20. Her father, a composer, didn’t think music was a good career for his children. But clearly, Yasmin was born to sing. And not just sing but sing Ladino music.
Ladino culture goes back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. They migrated mainly to the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans and North Africa, bringing their Judeo-Spanish language with them but mixing it with words from their new lands. For example, Yasmin Levy’s ancestors moved to Turkey, where their old language took on Turkish influences.
The language that was created in the Sephardic Diaspora is called Ladino, and along with it came a rich tradition of music and culture. There are now fewer than 150,000 people in the world who still speak Ladino, and it was recently recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s endangered languages. Here is Part 1 of an interview with Yasmin Levy, now 36, about Ladino and her efforts to keep it alive.
Q: There’s such a rich history for the Ladino language and culture. Are you bound by the tradition or free to experiment?
A: I feel very free. The traditional people from the Sephardi tradition appreciate and encourage everyone who wants to sing or research or start learning about Ladino, because the language is endangered. There are less than 150,000 people worldwide speaking the language. Fifty years from now, when these speakers die, the language will die. … As a singer, I can sing how I want and as much as I want. But it’s a bit difficult for the traditional people because they’re used to hearing the songs in a very traditional way, exactly how their mothers used to sing to them. … It’s important to keep the songs and the language the way it is, but it’s also important to open those songs to different musical influences.
Q: Your music is also influenced by personal family history, particularly your father, who died when you were only a baby?
A: He was a very dominant figure. The beautiful thing is that he’s still alive among us. My mom still speaks about him as if he’s here with us, everyday. Before he passed away, he told my mom that he didn’t want his children to be musicians as a profession. He wanted us to have a real profession — the Jewish way of thinking — to become doctors, lawyers. … All the family followed that advice. My brothers and sister are engineers and lawyers and I thought I’d do the same. My dream was to be a vet. But when I was 22, I realized that I cannot deceive myself, and with all due respect to my father, I realized that I was born to sing.
Q: You’ve studied music extensively in Spain, where the Ladino identity is especially strong. What did you learn in Spain that you didn’t already know about this tradition?
A: I went to Spain and lived near la Juderia, the Jewish quarter where the Jews lived before expulsion. I went as a tourist and saw ‘Calle Levy’ (Levy Street) — my family name — and I was a bit shocked. Then I started reading books and realized all the history — the most difficult history that the Jews experienced before the expulsion from Spain. So I felt like I have a mission, because the roots of flamenco are the Jewish liturgical songs that the Jews sang in the synagogue in Spain. It also includes the Muslim liturgical songs that Muslims sang in the mosques and the 12-beat rhythm that Gypsies brought with them from India to Spain. So those three elements got mixed, resulting in flamenco.
Yasmin Levy performs at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 11.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Q&A with Yasmin Levy: It’s all about Sentir — or feeling.
Interview condensed and edited from the original.
on Feb 09, 2012