When Yasmin Levy was signed up by her manager Paul Burger more than a decade ago, he joked that she would be unlikely to sell more than 128 records. You could understand why. After all, here was an unknown vocalist who specialised in singing half-forgotten songs in the language of Ladino — the Judeo-Spanish of the Sephardi world which is spoken by fewer than 150,000 people.
Levy, it is safe to say, has sold many more than 128 albums since then. Now onto her sixth CD, she has a worldwide following and has chalked up television appearances on innumerable shows, including Later with Jools Holland, and has performed at the Sydney Opera House and other major venues around the world.
In doing so she has played a major part in popularising ancient songs sung in one of Europe’s more obscure languages. The reason for her success? A peek at any of her videos on YouTube will give you the answer to that one. Levy has the kind of exotic beauty and powerful, soulful voice that could bring passion and romance to the adverts for plumbers in the Yellow Pages.
She could probably have achieved success in rock, pop or jazz but she maintains that her career chose her rather than the other way around. Her father, Yitzhak Levy, was a renowned musicologist who spent much of his career collecting Ladino songs and preserving them — in many cases recording them himself. He died when his youngest daughter, Yasmin, was still a baby, but she grew up with his influence and, in particular, his songs.
She recalls: “When I was young there was an evening held in my father’s memory. I sang one song and this turned my world upside down. Before that I had wanted to be a singer and be famous. But I felt so connected to those songs I decided I had to perform them. My brothers and sisters said: ‘Why do you want to sing in Ladino? No one will listen to you’. I said: ‘I’m going to show you that people will listen’.”
And listen they did. Between her first album, Romance & Yasmin, released in 2000 and her latest release, Libertad, Levy has become one of the biggest stars on the world music circuit.
She does however admit that because she has innovated by presenting the old songs in a variety of styles, from flamenco to Turkish, many purists have been left behind. “It was hard for the Ladino speakers. Because I am the daughter of my father, they had expectations of me. They had grown up listening to songs sung in a particular way by their mothers and I came and changed all that. But I had to go on my journey and accept I was not their cup of tea.”
On Libertad, that journey takes another step forward with Levy’s incorporation of the Turkish strings she grew up listening to (her family were Ladino-speaking immigrants from Turkey).
“Actually, it was my husband’s idea. He said: ‘Lets’s do a fusion of the flamenco style and the strings you dreamt about for so many years’. It seemed so natural to mix those two roots of mine, the Spanish and the Turkish ones. Nobody has combined those two sounds before. But for me it was obvious — the two styles go together like old friends.”
Though there are traditional Ladino songs on Libertad, there are also six written by Levy herself. When she composes, she does so in modern Spanish. “I never write in Ladino,” she says. “For me, it’s something holy. I would rather preserve those songs and treasure them. I wouldn’t want to mess around with them. In Spanish I have the freedom to do my thing, to be an artist rather than the person with a mission to spread Ladino songs.”
So if she is composing and singing in Spanish, why not in her native Hebrew or even English, which she speaks beautifully? Her answer is that she does occasionally sing in biblical Hebrew. “But for me, Hebrew is the language in which I buy bread and milk. I find no romance in it. I do try singing in English in the studio. But if I sung in English on stage my audience would be shocked. I’m very far from taking that step now.”
However, Levy can foresee the day when she produces an album without any Ladino standards on it. She says she wants to explore new areas. “I would like to open myself up to new things and if this means letting go of Ladino for a few years, that’s fine because people know that I always bring Ladino with me. Right now I’m not saying no to anything because I don’t want to put myself in a musical ghetto.
Although Hebrew is not her singing language of choice, she freely acknowledges that her Jerusalem upbringing was pivotal in defining the music she listened to and sang.
“Jerusalem is a great melting pot and I grew up listening to classical, jazz, flamenco, Turkish, Greek, Persian and Arabic music. It’s a privilege that not many people have — you have to be lucky to be born in a place like this. And I’m the result of this mixture.”
Yasmin Levy plays live at The Old Market,Upper Market Street,Hove,on Tuesday November 6 at 8pm. Tickets: £20 from 01273 201 801/www.theoldmarket.com