A Ladino Singer Rebels –– With Flamenco

Music

By Eric Marx

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Yasmin Levy should be a very happy woman. The Jerusalem-born singer is perhaps the most visible and popular performer of contemporary Ladino music. Critics gushed over her 2001 debut album, “Romance & Yasmin,” and well-received performances at the World of Music, Arts & Dance festivals in Singapore and Madrid in 2004 and 2005 have garnered Levy the kind of crossover success to which few others in the genre come close.

But when it comes to discussing her second release, “La Juderia” and its heavy flamenco influence, Levy sounds more like a spurned exile.

“People [in the Sephardic-Ladino community] in Israel are angry with me,” said Levy, 28, referring to the flamenco. “It’s something I had to do, and I can tell you today, I’m not a flamenco singer.”

“La Juderia” does indeed have a considerable flamenco flavor. A Ladino-based album in melody and content that incorporates flamenco rhythms, contemporary Spanish and Arabic instrumentation, “La Juderia” was blasted by critics who felt the album was a scattershot, effort-lacking focus. But the criticism has made Levy defiant.

“My intention is to not only be a Ladino singer. I can do both. I can offer the world more than Ladino,” she insisted, “but I will sing Ladino for the rest of my life.”

Levy is the daughter of Yitzhak Levy, a renowned Ladino ethnomusicologist and musician who died when she was 1 year old. She was virtually weaned on his recordings, yet she had turned away from his music. But when she was 17, a family friend persuaded her to sing one of her father’s old songs.

“That’s the only thing I have from him: his voice,” Levy said of her father’s recordings.

It was Yitzhak Levy, in fact, who helped usher in the present-day Ladino musical revival when, in 1959, he published the first of a 14-volume set of field recordings. Yet he also left instructions for his wife to destroy the original tapes to avoid criticism that he was misinterpreting the songs. Without original recordings, he thought people would not be able to second-guess whether his work was accurate. (He was wrong; the criticism he feared has indeed been lobbed at him posthumously.)

“For me it’s a great loss that you cannot hear the people,” Levy said. “But you can hear the song. You do have the song. You just don’t have the original tape.”

“Everything he recorded you can look at in the books,” Levy said. She acknowledges the incalculable loss while attempting to defend her mother, who ended up burning thousands of reels of tape.

Levy is unmindful of neither the controversy surrounding her father nor the perilous state of Ladino culture. But so, too, is she an artist who sees herself belonging to a larger musical tradition in which flamenco is a tangible link to Jewish and Muslim religious songs. She said she still had much to learn, and confided that for a time she did everything she could to run away from the music, though today she’s developed a newfound appreciation. “I grew up with Ladino and so it’s logical I’d want to do something else.

“Everyone wants Ladino, but I said to myself, ‘I have to do what I want.’ People have to hear me as a singer.”

Eric Marx is a freelance writer based in New York City.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.