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Flamenco in Ladino: Interview with Yasmin Levy

Please tell me about yourself. How did you come to music?

I grew up in a house of singers. My father, may his memory be for a blessing, was Yitzhak Levy, a musician, composer, poet and singer. His family is descended from the Spanish exiles of 1492. The Jews and Muslims who didn't convert to Catholicism left Spain for various parts of the world. My father's forebears came to Turkey, where they lived about 500 years. When he was three, his parents moved with him to Jerusalem. They still had the songs from Spain. These had passed from father to son, from mother to daughter. No one had ever written them down.

My father was the first who understood how important it was to write this music, otherwise it would disappear. He used to go from house to house among Ladino speakers and record the songs. By the time he died, he'd published fourteen volumes, including songs centuries old. My father is thought of as one who preserved the heritage of Spanish Jewry. He died when I was one. I grew up on these songs. I've listened to him singing them all my life, from his recordings.

I sang many times with my mother, but I never thought of becoming a singer. I wanted to be a veterinarian. When I was 17, though, just before my army service, I traveled to Spain. I went to visit a friend of my mother's, a Spanish Christian named Julia Leon in the north of the country, and she wanted to make a record in Ladino. She had some volumes of my father's work, and she asked me to sing. I declined at first, saying I didn't know how. She insisted: You know! At last she opened one of his books and said, Now sing! I looked at the words and began to sing. It was all in my head. Julia said: It's your duty to sing these songs. And so it was.

Why didn't you go with something more popular than Ladino?

My brothers said that too. They said it has a smell of mothballs. It's old, antique, who will listen to that? But I think the songs are beautiful. Ladino is disappearing. It's about to die as a spoken language. So for me this is a sacred mission, a debt I owe my father. Even if I do sing in other languages, I shall always keep a place for Ladino.

Can you say something more about Ladino?

When the Christians took Spain back from the Muslims—this was in the 13th century—the conquest was accompanied by a lot of religious fervor. In 1492 they gave the Muslims and Jews an ultimatum: convert or get out. Many converted, many got out.

In Spain at that time, the Muslims, Jews and Christians all spoke what is now called Old Spanish (Castilian). This got mixed with the languages of the places where the exiles settled down, so a new language developed, whose basis is old Spanish but with lots of dialects. This is Ladino.

The Jews who left Spain in 1492 couldn't take their property with them. So what did they have? Memories and songs. The songs speak of love, sadness, longings for Jerusalem, longings for the man who abandoned me, for the husband who went off to war, for the knight-in-armor. There are also songs with a hidden message. A mother sings a lullaby to her son and says: "Sleep, my little boy, sleep. Daddy will come and bring presents, and you will grow up with the years." But she weeps while she sings. Why does she weep? The song doesn't tell you. She's weeping because she is thinking, "Sleep, my little boy, sleep. Daddy will come very soon. He's with his mistress." If you don't know this, you don't get it. That's Ladino.

Your performance and your new CD combine Ladino with flamenco. What led you to this combination?

The gypsies developed flamenco after coming to Spain from India. The general view is that they took from Arab music, especially from the song of the muezzin [who calls Muslims to prayer—A.A.], and added their rhythm. It's debatable whether flamenco has Jewish roots too, because the gypsies reached Spain long after the expulsion of 1492. But I say there are. The Jews who converted and stayed in Spain still sang the same songs, from the synagogue mainly—cantorial music, and these became part of flamenco.

Why did you name this latest CD La Juderia?

I studied singing for three months at a school in Andalusia. It was next to a café where we liked to go. One day I learned that the café was on a street named Levy, like my family name. Then I discovered the Jewish Quarter. In every town the Jewish Quarter is called La Juderia. I saw the porches and the windows, and I said to myself, “Here Jews were living more than 500 years ago.” In Spain they say that everyone in some way or other goes back to a Muslim or a Jew that converted. That fascinated me. It was as though I had closed a circle. Then I decided I would take something of my own that has Christian roots, which is Ladino, and unite it with something that today is Christian, but that has Arab, Gypsy and Jewish roots, which is flamenco, and all this came together.
I hear you’ve been criticized for your rendition of Mercedes Sosa’s “Gracias a la Vida.”

There were many unfavorable reactions. I’d gotten into shoes that were too big for me. A singer has to accumulate experience. I did what I thought was right. It’s a song that I grew up on, and it moves me. Sosa is tremendous, and the song is tremendous. I thought of giving it a different color, but people love it like it is. I did it more as an aggressive flamenco, but it’s delicate. Here is a song that belongs to the tremendous Sosa, and then little Yasmin comes along and changes it. I got slapped. There are classics that are not to be touched.

How does Arab music fit in with this encounter between Ladino and flamenco?

Arab music is drenched with flamenco. This is well known. What I did was to take this combination and insert my Ladino, which is likewise influenced by Turkish Muslim culture. I bring to my music all the ingredients I know—Arab, Muslim and Turkish. I have a nay, an oud and a darbuka.*

This angers many people, who accuse me of making Ladino oriental. I answer that we lived 500 years in Turkey. We heard their beautiful music. Is it conceivable that we weren't influenced? It has entered our songs and our souls. My task is to preserve this and not to deny it.

You perform a great deal in the world but very little in Israel. Why?

Because I don't sing in Hebrew. I sing in Spanish. But I do have an audience here. They stick with me through fire and water. I don't grow from the media. I grow from word of mouth. As of now, it's hard for me to write songs in Hebrew. I'm afraid I won't be able to excite a crowd as I can in Spanish.

Would you want to sing in Arabic?

I grew up on Arab music, on Um Kultum, Abed al-Wahab, Farid al-Atrash. It's my dream to do Farid's al-Rabiá. But I'm not expert enough in Arab song, and I only wish I could speak the language properly! The more I study Arab music, the better I understand what a giant Farid is. I'll never fit into his shoes.

Do you see a political significance in the meeting of cultures that you bring about?

I received a gift, which is music. That's my Torah. I see how people are tearing up our world. I can't do much to change this, but in my field there is no distinction between Jew, Christian and Muslim. I work with musicians of all three faiths. We're one family. The stage is perhaps the best place to see this.

The question, though, is what happens when we leave the theatre and enter our hard reality with its suicide attacks and wars.

I'm no politician. When Palestinians are killed, my heart is consumed. A three-year-old baby was just killed by an IDF rocket. Mistake or no mistake. It's a baby. And then we're attacked here, and you say, One of our babies was killed.
While the Lebanon War was being fought, I was in France. I had a performance on the night after the army bombed an orphanage. I understood that for the people in the audience, I was the face of Israel. I couldn't say, "I'm just music." I walked on stage, and someone shouted, "Beirut! Beirut!" Another shouted “Peace!” I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm even sadder than you. I live in Israel, Palestine. I live this death. I know you are hurting, but I’m hurting more. Come, let's make one thing good. Let's give to one another. What I can give you is music. If you don't want to hear me, I'll respect that too. But you came here, so let's feel and embrace." After that there was a feeling of love, great love, in the air.
I get letters from people in Iran who write, "Yasmin, we love you." The fact that you came today to interview me is important to me. It's important, because our situation isn't good, and it's becoming worse. The Palestinians must not continue to suffer. I don't want us to suffer either. So I say, Come on for God's sake, let's sit down and find a solution. Let's make it our concern that no one should be deprived of anything—food, bread, culture, or education. Everyone must be permitted to live in dignity.

Of your voice it's been said that it can melt the walls in the heart. Do you believe this?

I only wish that I had such power. You can say of someone that she sings beautifully, but in the end these are only words and they can't melt a thing. When the argument is about home and land, generations will have to pass before there can be a solution.
If the Arab world were open to me, I would sing from one end to the other. I'd want to perform in Ramallah and Gaza. But it doesn't seem that this will happen soon. In the meantime, everyone who loves me and what I do is a world for me. "end"

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