Joseph Finlay writes:
As every Jewish musician knows, the trick is to play to gentiles. There just aren’t enough Jewish audiences to build a career around, and when Jewish gigs do turn up they pay badly, or not at all. So the Jewish musician finds themself in a double bind – they need to present themselves as highly Jewish in order to be seen as ‘authentic’ – the highest prized commodity in the world music scene – but not so Jewish that they might frighten away gentile fans. Matisyahu played a blinder on this – initially billed as the world first Chassidic rapper, he would appear on stage in full ultraorthodox regalia, performing lyrics inspired by his Chabadnik beliefs, but this was constantly undercut by the reggae and hip hop grooves. In 2011 he went a stage further, shaving off his beard and declaring himself no longer Chabad. Clearly a wider audience beckons.
Yasmin Levy is evidently playing the same game. Having gained prominence back in 2005 as the leading (indeed only major) singer of Ladino songs, as an Israeli born into a Turkish Jewish family, Levy is now banking the authenticity card and branching out. Her new album Libertad, launched at the Barbican last week, is predominantly in modern Spanish, with just a handful of Ladino tracks. In a recent interview with the Jewish Chronicle Levy justifies this saying: “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”. No doubt the world’s 390 million Spanish speakers, and thus greatly improved potential for album sales was also a factor.
We shouldn’t, however, be too cynical – mostly because Levy is extremely good. Her Barbican show presented a consummate performer who charmed and seduced the audience, consistently demonstrating impressive vocal power and flexibility. Following an eminently forgettable warm up by a young Macedonian singer, Levy and her high quality band performed an almost 2 hour set, of Spanish, Turkish, Argentinian and Portuguese repertoire, with Flamenco sound at the core. The addition of a Turkish inspired string section playing exclusively unison and heterophonic accompaniments was particularly welcome. The programme included a number of Yasmin Levy originals, the majority of which were very good, though a few were distinctly ‘radio-friendly’, not least the album’s title track ‘Libertad’ which came a little too close to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’ for comfort.
The arrangements were consistently excellent, providing sufficient variety when the source material could otherwise be too samey. While there were clearly a fair number of Spanish (and a few Ladino) speakers present, the rest of the audience was carried by the palpable emotion and charisma of the lead singer. This is aided by the predominantly melancholy nature of the songs, which Levy sardonically described as being about either ‘dead people or suicide’. In the absence of surtitles the audience was able, and implicitly encouraged to inhabit a generalised sense of sadness and loss, projecting their own personal experiences onto the sombre, rich Mediterranean melodies.
The only disappointment is that Levy doesn’t write original songs in Ladino, saying “for me, it’s something holy. I would rather preserve those songs and treasure them”. This is understandable but surely misplaced – just as contemporary Yiddish poets renew the culture by producing new and vibrant work, Ladino could surely benefit from contemporary compositions which bring the dying language into contact with the modern world. This is the difference between preserving artefacts in a museum and allowing them to live. The number of Ladino speakers is rapidly dwindling, so if not now when? And if Yasmin Levy doesn’t do this, who will?
2. Jay Prosser writes:
London was treated to the world premier of songs from the new CD Libertad by Yasmin Levy, when she chose the UK to launch her international tour to celebrate the release of this, her fifth album. The Israeli singer gave a totally compelling and engaging performance — though to assign Levy to a single country, and to suggest that there is anything stagey about her presence, doesn’t do justice to the instinctive and authentic cosmopolitanism that has won Levy several awards, including from the BBC, for musical boundary-crossing and multicultural peace-building.
Levy’s voice is exceptional – emotive and deeply affecting. Forgoing purer, traditional renditions of the Ladino songs (in which the singer’s voice emanates from the head), songs that Levy began her musical career by transforming, Levy sings not just with her head or her heart or lungs but with every cell in her body. Her voice has a cavernous melancholic ache that touches the audience viscerally, in our bodies. Her support act on the night, Tania Tzarovska — who did a good job bringing Macedonian folk sings spiritually and emotionally to life — nonetheless posed mainly a contrast, as she sang from the waist up. Levy sings from much further below, not only from her own core but from roots that are experiential, genealogical and archaic.
Levy’s voice has such power and freedom – ‘libertad’ indeed – that it would be best served by a concert en plein air, on a warm summer’s night, with no limits or boundaries to surround it. It has to be said that the singer was constrained by the Barbican venue. There were glitches at the beginning of the set. The sound on Levy’s microphone was initially mechanical and unreliable. After a verse of ‘Skalerikas de Oro,’ she interrupted herself, announcing — to her band as much as to the audience –that she was in the ‘wrong key’; she made her musicians begin the song again. The audience applauded this moment of honesty — of non-performance: an acknowledgement that the music is alive and therefore needs honouring and to be got right. Clearly Levy has to be at one with the music, absolutely in it, and by the fifth song of the night, the powerful gypsy lament of rootlessness ‘Naci en Alamo,’ Levy was all there — as she told us, ‘starting to feel’ the music that she evidently channels, more than performs.
The concert set contained nine out of the twelve songs from the new CD, which carries forward past fusions, mainly Ladino with flamenco, now to interweave, in a more pronounced fashion, Turkish and Persian motifs. While the CD enlists the Strings Orchestra Istanbul, Levy recreated the sweeping strings of Turkish music on stage with four violins, which joined her more recurrent instruments of piano, percussion, guitars and bass, flute and clarinet (western, flamenco and Arabic sounds – though Levy’s music refuses to affix any one instrument to any one place since all instruments are used cross-culturally). Levy’s musicians come from around the world – Israel, Germany, Armenia, Iran — and include her husband the percussionist Ishay Amir. The most obvious Turkish affiliation was in ‘Firuze,’ a Turkish-composed song, made famous by Sezen Arusku, whose more orchestrated and heavier, even rendition Levy leavened by adding flamenco sharpness and her own fluctuating intonation. Levy, of course, made the song more touching.
The presence of strings added further elements of fusion to earlier songs. It was nice to hear quite a few songs from La Juderia, Levy’s most Andalusian album, her ‘musical reconciliation’ between Arabs and Jews for which Levy received criticism both for this element and for Christianising both groups’ songs. In the concert version of ‘La Alegria,’ the collated strings added Turkish undercurrent to single flamenco guitar rhythms with its Andalusian Spanish origins and Levy’s own singing-as-crying-out. Levy wants that we cannot tell the difference between old and new, and this she achieved with the Ladino songs of the night. ‘Mi Korasón’ was modernised with Latin Jazz. ‘Aman Doktor’ (‘Mercy Doctor’) from the new CD, Levy introduced as a ‘Turkish song’ sung by grandmother, a folk superstition complaint of literal love-sickness that joined ancient-oriental with the contemporary, affective overtones of Levy’s voice.
I meet Yasmin Levy the day after the concert to sit on comfortable sofas in her agent’s office in central London and chat about both the concert and her new CD. Levy says that in the ‘melting pot’ that is Jerusalem, she grew up listening to sounds from all worlds, cultures and religions: Turkish, Western opera, American Jazz, Iranian music, Ladino music (sung by her mother, who has also, with Yasmin’s help, released a CD – the CD that Yasmin says is the most important of all those she has done, including her own). Yasmin was nourished on what she calls this ‘salad of music,’ absorbing all its various ‘flavours.’ Her father, the musicologist and chazzan (cantor) Yitzhak Levy, was born in Manissa near Izmir, and for 500 years his family had been part of the Ottoman Empire before , aged 3, he emigrated to Jerusalem. With her latest CD Yasmin says she feels she has ‘closed the circle,’ realising her dream of integrating Turkish strings with Spanish flamenco and Ladino — a symbolic achievement, given centuries’ wars between Spain and Turkey (and disagreements often over their Jewish and Muslim populations).
Levy speaks articulately and knowledgeably about the transcultural or cosmopolitan provenances of her music and its long traditions, and the transfer of sounds both between different cultures, and between religions liturgy and secular song. She tells me that Muslims sang prayers as a way to draw young men into the mosques, and in Spain Jews adopted this tactic for the synagogues. She talks about the different scales and quarter tones of ‘oriental’ music and says that the notes carry a nuanced sadness that brings Muslims and Jews very close together when they sing and pray. Levy herself admits to being at her most creative when she is sad. ‘Sadness is my blessing. I am the happiest person with the biggest sadness in my heart.’ When I ask her where she sings from, she says unhesitatingly it is from this place of sadness. Her father died when she was just one-year old, and she seems to have encrypted him inside her songs, at the same time as they have given her life.
Levy is quite beautiful and, needless to say, compelling to watch as well as to listen to. For her rendition of ‘Tal Vez’ (‘Perhaps’), a song co- written with her brother which captures the voice of a woman worn down by life (‘cansada de la vida’) who tells her lover she is looking for only ‘pocos momentos de amor’ (a few moments of love), ‘mi cuerpo con tu cuerpo,’ Levy lay spread back in a chair, her vivid red dress emphasizing her dark hair and eyes and olive skin, its length split open to reveal to us a very, very sexy leg. Levy doesn’t so much dance – the term is too performative or theatrical for what her body does when she sings — as allow the music to take over and seduce her body, so that as she becomes one with the music we, in turn, are seduced by her. The tiniest movements Levy makes on stage have affective power. She talked about being upstaged by the girls on the violins behind her, but there was no chance of that.
But Levy was also – perhaps particularly welcomingly for a British audience — self-ironising. All the characters in her repertoire are dead or about to commit suicide, she remarked, humorously self-conscious of her melancholic compulsions. The Barbican audience was reluctant (is this a British or more general North European trait?) to embrace her invitation to sing along to the (Come on! I find it irresistible!) chorus of ‘Adio Kerida,’ and I have to say some were even struggling to clap in time to the clear tango rhythms of ‘La Ultima Cancion.’ Yet Levy was generously responsive to and grateful for any audience interaction. She had chosen the songs on the set in part, she told us, in dialogue with her fans, helped by Facebook.
Her performance of ‘Libertad,’ the title track of the new CD, the last of the set before the encore, was itself upbeat. Levy introduced the song by telling us she wrote it when, as she travelled around the world, she observed women who had no freedom. With its Latin beat and relatively fewer (for Levy) minor notes, its catchy rhythms and alliterative lyrics evoke a struggle for freedom and hope for the future.
Levy ended the concert, after the encore, with ‘Olvidate de Mi’ – ‘Forget about Me,’ another of her own compositions. There are quite a few songs about forgetting on Libertad, including ‘La Nave del Olvido (‘The Ship of Oblivion’) –– a romantic ballad about forgetting and sadness made famous by Mexican singer José José in the early 1970s. But as she sent us out into the London city night, paradoxically uplifted and healed by all her sadness, those of us who were fortunate enough to see her are hardly likely to forget Yasmin Levy.