Yasmin Levy is living embodiment of the melting pot influences she has inherited through her geographic and family heritage. A Sephardi Jew [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephardi_Jews], Levy’s music and voice reflects the broad variety of musical and cultural influences that shaped her people. Her father, Yitzhak Levy, originally born in Turkey returned to Israel at the age of three, eventually becoming a musicologist with a particular passion for collecting and preserving of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) folk songs. Though he died when Levy was only 1 years old she continued to build on his work incorporating Ladino songs in her repertoire and taking it out to the world and a wider audience.
The irony is that if he had lived it is unlikely he would have approved of his daughter taking up singing as a career; in fact he insisted her mother stopped singing when they married. In this interview Levy explains what Ladino means, what she has brought to the style, why she loves to sing sad songs, her writing process and where she is heading in the next 12 months.
iSing: Can you please explain what Ladino music is, the culture and what it means to you?
Yasmin Levy: Ladino is the language of the Jews that were expelled from Spain. They lived there until 1492 when the Catholic rulers expelled them. They were dispersed to many parts of the world; they mainly went to live in the Balkan in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. They spoke Spanish but the Jews that went to live in Turkey, like my family they mixed the Spanish with Turkish words. Those that went to Morocco mixed in Moroccan words and the same happened all over the world. This created a language called Ladino. In other words old Spanish mixed with words from other languages and it is Jewish because Jews kept this language alive. The old songs were passed down from generation to generation. My father, Yitzhak Levy, dedicated his life to collecting and preserving these songs, because he realised that if nobody did this the songs would disappear. He basically saved those songs from dying out.
As his daughter this is my tradition, my heritage, like singing this is my being my past my future, my everything, it is who I am.
iSing: What are the vocal requirements to sing Ladino
YS: In my opinion there are no vocal requirements. For instance if you sing fado or flamenco you need to have good technical skills vocally. But anybody can sing Ladino because Ladino, you have to remember that these songs were never supposed to be on stage. Those songs, the language and the memories were the only things that the Jews could take from Spain, they loved Spain. So those songs help them survive the difficulties of life, to express their soul. So you do not have to be technically amazing you just have to be as simple as you can and this is the beauty of it.
iSing: Do you sing the songs in the traditional manner?
YS: I sing the way Yasmin Levy sings. When I started to sing these songs I refuse to see them as something old. I wanted to see them as young and passionate. So I brought my fuego, my fire and passion to it. This was my choice, many people don’t like it but then many people do. I don’t make it too sophisticated; I try to keep it simple. When I first started to sing those songs there were many expectations put on me, first of all because I’m the daughter of my father, then because I was the youngest person to sing these songs. People supported me but expected me to be the next generation to carry on those songs. But my character would not allow me to be ”nice”. I do not do things just to make people happy, I do what my heart tells me. And I could not sing these songs in the way people use to sing them which was very nice and soft. It’s not me. I knew I would pay the price. When the traditionalists heard me they were shocked, in a bad way. I didn’t understand for many years why they didn’t like it. But then I realised that they’d grown up listening to their mother singing to them in a particular way, and then a girl comes along and sings in a different way, even brings flamenco into it. It took me years to understand I ruined something that their mother had given them. So I decided to travel, to leave Israel, get out of this community and bring the songs to people in the world who had nothing to do with this tradition. If I had stayed singing in the traditional way I would be singing in someone’s living room for the rest of my life and that was not my intention.
iSing: Where do your influences come from?
YS: First of all my mother and father, then Antonio Molina from Spain. Turkish and Persian music, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf – big voices. I grew up on big voices like Luciano Pavarotti. Also opera (the miracle of life), and mostly deep and sad songs. Always sadness.
iSing: Do you think a singer needs to have had a painful life to sing sad songs with conviction?
YS: For so many years I’ve had to explain myself for being melancholic. I’ve had to apologise that had to explain. And there been times when I tried to sing happy songs for the audience but it becomes somehow sad. I ruined the happy songs and for years I thought I had a problem. But then I came to realise that some people touch you through happiness and some people touch you through sadness and also make you happy, but in a different way. For me sadness is happiness, if I don’t have sadness in my life I would be miserable, as ridiculous as that sounds.
When I’m not sad I cannot create, I can try and try and try, but I cannot compose. For my creation, and my being as a singer and musician happiness as punishment. And I realise that and I accept myself like that. People know me now they know that when they come to my concert that they get sadness that they go out happy because they can cry and clean their souls. I can express myself more with sad songs.
If you know me you will find I am one of the funniest people you could meet. I laugh and make jokes. If my husband was a sad person I could have had have gone into a deep and bad place. But he brings balance into my life, and now I’m a mother. I don’t believe I should be an artist that has to suffer, use drugs or create tragedy. No, I get up I work, I sing and I’m happy that people will accept me for who I am. I know I have sadness in my soul, that is how I was born, but I do good things with it.
iSing: What is your writing process?
YS: There is no process I could go now after talking to on the phone and go and write a song. I could go to the shop and buy some milk and then come home with milk and a song. On the other hand I consider much and I play for a month and I would have anything no matter how hard I try. Its like God sends me a song by fax into my head and he wants me to bring it to people. The beautiful thing is I could have a song in my head as we talk and it won’t let go, it’s like a fly and it can drive me nuts, until I get it out until its recorded and I sing it. It’s very frustrating when it disappears. If I have a song in my mind and I get interrupted like my son comes in talk to me or my daughter is crying after three hours it will disappear. And the feeling is like part of my body is gone, and I can’t have any more is gone with the wind and it’s so painful.
iSing: Do you have a particular style when you’re writing
YS: I have so many styles each sound can sound different. I assume that is because I grew up in Israel, which is a melting pot, and I grew up listening to so many different types of music. I’m the creation of all this mixture I never planned I don’t have any rules I just do
iSing: What is your typical kind of concert?
YS: I used to only perform in concert halls with two to two and a half thousand people in the audience. I never liked clubs, I found it insulting when a performer sang their soul and their heart out and the people are sitting there drinking wine, smoking and eating. And then recently I started to play in a special club for music, mainly in Israel. People eat and then stop when you come on the stage, they may have a glass of wine. Now I am looking to sing more in clubs, I think it’s because I feel safe now, I’m no longer afraid to be so close, maybe I was afraid of it before? I found the magic of being so close and intimate, and I actually go down to the people and sing with them.
iSing: Do you have a vocal routine?
YS: I do before I go on stage and before I record an album I warm up my voice up for about 25 minutes. I started doing this only after three albums because I used to sing like a gypsy, I would sing every time, anywhere, any time – like a crazy woman after three albums I realise that if I’m going to continue like this I will lose my voice. And this is where I started to be more professional. So now my voice is spoilt now if I don’t warm my voice and I sing I will lose my voice the next day.
My voice knows now that it should be treated well.
iSing: Do you have any specific routine you keep before you perform?
YS: The only thing I can tell you is that I want to be left alone, really want to be left alone. It bothers me even when people just want to come and say hello.
iSing: Your last album, “Tango” came out in 2014 do you have any plans for more albums?
YS: I am working on two albums, which I hope will be ready in a year from now. One for world music, and one in Hebrew. For the first time I am singing in my mother tongue. I’m trying to change musical direction but I still cannot put a finger on it. I’m still in the process of searching but I do know I am going in a new way. The important thing is to find a new sound that I want and to do it smart not to throw away everything I did until today but to take my audience on this new journey with me. I’ve learned that I’m one of the bravest persons that I know. I’m not afraid to make mistakes, I’m not afraid to be left or to be abandoned as long as I’m being honest with myself. I have to do this journey as a person and an artist. My audience trust me so much because they know that I’m honest even if I make a mistake they are with me because they respect my way and what I’m doing. My aim is not to be in the comfort zone this is not what I came to do this will kill my art.
I have to do this journey as a person and an artist. My audience trust me so much because they know that I’m honest even if I make a mistake they are with me because they respect my way and what I’m doing. My aim is not to be in the comfort zone this is not what I came to do this will kill my art.
Yasmin Levy : Adio Kerida taken from the film: BULGARIAN RAPHSODIE