Yasmin Levy revitalized the ancient art of Ladino singing, the Judeo-Spanish style whose songs reach back to 15th-century Spain. The Ladino singer was born Yasmin Levy in Bakaa, Jerusalem, Israel, on 23 December 1975. A ‘very small, beautiful neighborhood’, Bakaa is filled with narrow alleyways and warrens dating back many hundreds of years. The area is still a vital part of the history of this great city and, for Yasmin, her roots. She still lives in the flat to which her parents moved when they were first married. Family and roots are very important to Yasmin and juggling family and professional commitments made easier by the fact that her husband Ishay works and travels with her, playing darbuka in most of her shows and handling many of the logistical arrangements of touring. Whenever she has time off, she loves to return to Jerusalem and spend time with her mother, brothers, sister and their families.
Yasmin’s musical interests began as a child. At six years of age, she was taught to play piano and she continued with her studies until age eighteen. At twenty, she began singing seriously but it wasn’t until a year later that she made her first public performance as a guest in a concert given by her mother. Other local concerts followed but it wasn’t until world music showcase WOMEX 2002 that she made her international debut and embarked on a singing career.
Her first album Romance And Yasmin focused on Ladino music and Turkish influences and was greatly influenced by the work of her late father Yitzhak Levy. He was born in Turkey in 1919 and, at the tender age of 3, moved with his family to Palestine. As a grown man he worked as both a composer and cantor.
After the creation of the state of Israel he was appointed head of the Ladino department at Israel’s national radio station. His life’s work was devoted to the collection and preservation of the songs of Sephardic Jews: these songs had been passed down orally from generation to generation over a period in excess of 500 years. During his lifetime he published 4 books containing Sephardic romances and another 10 volumes of liturgical songs. He also recorded many of these same songs for the national radio. Sadly, Yitzhak Levy passed away when Yasmin was little over one year old. Nevertheless she grew up knowing her father’s love for this music and his heritage as he had also taught her mother Kochava the Sephardic repertoire and she, in turn, passed the songs on to their daughter. When Yasmin was preparing her first disc Romance And Yasmin, she said she was ‘helped enormously by the books and recordings my father left behind‘.
The songs and arrangements on this first album came very naturally to the singer, based on what she had learned from home. She says: ‘The choice of songs was easy for me as they are all songs to which I have an emotional attachment’. For her second album, the highly acclaimed La Juderia, Yasmin continued her work with the Ladino tradition but began to experiment more with the flamenco influences that date back to her residence in Spain during 2002. In that year, she was awarded a scholarship by the Christina Herren Foundation to study flamenco in Seville. There she was influenced strongly by the unique singing style that she then added to her own Sephardic one.
Her much-anticipated third album Mano Suave (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) was released in October 2007 and marked a mature return to her Ladino roots. Recorded in London’s Livingston Studios in February 2007, it has Lucy Duran and Jerry Boys co-producing. Continuing Yasmin’s tradition of using the best musicians available, the new album features players from Iran, Armenia, Greece, Paraguay, Israel, Turkey and Spain. Mano Suave also features Natacha Atlas on the title track.
Yasmin’s deep, spiritual singing, passionate vocal delivery and striking good looks continue to entrance fans new and old. She has thrice been nominated for BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards and her appearance on BBC 2 TV’s Later’With Jools in November 2005 was one of the highlights of that particular series.
In March 2006, Yasmin was presented with the Anna Lindh Award for promoting cross-cultural dialogue, for her work with musicians covering three cultures and her connection with the history of Spain. The award reflects many of her hopes for the future. On a musical level, these have been distilled into the music and songs on Mano Suave. On a more global scale, she desires ‘that people will have more compassion towards each other and learn to live in harmony’.
Romance & Yasmin (Connecting Cultures, 2004)
La Judería (Connecting Cultures, 2005)
Mano Suave (World Village, 2007)
Sentir (World Village, 2009)
Libertad (World Village 450023, 2012)
Tango (World Village 450026, 2014)
Rak Od Layla Echad (The Eighth Note, 2017)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.