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.