On Thursday October 29 concertgoers experienced pre-Halloween chills when Sephardic Israeli singer Yasmin Levy took to the stage of San Francisco’s Herbst Theater as part of the city’s annual fall jazz festival. The audience sat attentively, hypnotized from the moment the dark-haired cantadora sauntered on stage in a black, off the shoulder gown. Her voice seamlessly oscillated from booming crescendo to a delicate hum alongside the interweaving of percussion and an electric double bass with flamenco guitar strums and the cries of a masterfully played duduk, ney, clarinet, and at times a flute. During instrumental solos Levy was prone to standing with her hands by her sides and her eyes bowed reverently, allowing her band to command the audience’s full attention. But there were times when she seemed to be compelled by the instruments, drawn back and forth in a gentle sway with her eyes squeezed shut, neck stretched back in a posture too sensual and too vulnerable to be watched comfortably. Her singing, following in the tradition of Flamenco singers and Jewish religious songs, at times took on a gasping cry-like quality. Even when soft her music was never reserved. With it’s raw, emotional quality the lyrics themselves seemed to take on the dimension and pitch of her voice. “I don’t have to know what it’s about,” whispered the audience member next to me that did not know Spanish, “to know what it’s about.” At one point during a song about unrequited love Levy looked physically pained by the lyrics she sang and stumbled a step back, hand clutching at her middle. It was hard to fathom that her concert was in fact, a performance. But maybe that’s because music runs in her blood. Levy has followed in the footsteps of her Turkish-born musicologist father, Yitzhak Levy, and made it her life’s goal to preserve and uphold the tradition of Ladino music. “I learned these songs in my mother’s kitchen,” she told the audience.
If you’ve never heard Ladino music, you’re not alone. Today fewer than 200,000 people world-wide know the ancient form of Spanish spoken by the Jewish people that resettled throughout the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain during the infamous Inquisition. Levy’s performance showcased compositions from her first CD to be released in the U.S., “Mano Suave,” co-produced by Lucy Duran and Jerry Boys of the Buena Vista Social Club. “Mano Suave’s” title track is a Bedouin song featuring a duet with Egyptian singer Natacha Atlas, which Levy recorded as a deliberate political statement. “Our duet is a message of hope,” said Levy to the press. “I want people to pay attention that a Jew and an Arab can make music together that comes from a place of mutual love and respect…Mano Suave is what Jerusalem sounds like. That mixture of sadness, the past, the sorrow; the smells of food; the three religions in the Old City, where you have a church, a mosque and a synagogue all together.” Levy’s music as a whole is an equally diverse mixture. In addition to traditional Ladino songs, multilingual Levy also sings her own original compositions in modern-day Spanish. She has managed to interweave flamenco and jazz rhythms into songs laid thick with Arabic and Turkish instrumental influence without overcomplicating the melody. The result is the uniquely evocative style that has earned her nominations for BBC Radio’s Award for World Music three years in a row.
But if despite her ever mounting success Levy is ever in search of a new career path, I suggest she try her hand at being a stand-up comedian. In between each number Levy told antidotes about the songs, explaining their history, their inspiration, and their meaning. She even poked fun at the blatant sexuality of the traditional lyrics and her own compositions’ eclectic mash-up style. “The Sephardi community of Israel does not like this version,” she said in preface to one Ladino song she gave a “Yasmin” twist. “They think I am destroying the tradition. And I understand that and I respect that. But with all do respect…I’m going to do it now.” The audience laughed out loud. When she paused at one point in the show, mid-antidote, to ask the audience “Are you sick of my stories?” The crowd responded with a knee-jerk: “No!” It was this uncensored, interactive quality of the concert that allowed Levy to do what I have never seen any other artist do before. Between sets she asked for the lights to be placed on the audience. Next she told us that we were going to sing a Ladino song. She demonstrated a few lines. The audience laughed nervously. Then the band began to play. Levy spoon-fed her audience the lyrics, line by line. “No quierdo…” And the American audience of mixed ethnicity with presumably little to no knowledge of Ladino, began to sing. The unbarred intimacy of Levy’s performance allowed her to realize her dream that night. “If I can manage in some small way to help keep these beautiful Ladino songs alive, I will be the happiest musician imaginable.”