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Singer Yasmin Levy Talks About Musical Influences, Love For Ladino Language

Singer Yasmin Levy performs in the ancient Ladino language, which she learned from her mother in Israel.
Courtesy of Yasmin Levy/ Photo By Judith Burrows
Singer Yasmin Levy performs in the ancient Ladino language, which she learned from her mother in Israel.
Singer Yasmin Levy Talks About Musical Influences, Love For Ladino Language
Like many singers, Yasmin Levy's love for music started at a very early age. What makes Yasmin Levy unique, is the ancient language that she sings in. We speak to Levy about her musical influences, the Ladino language, and her U.S. tour that begins tonight in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The history of the ‘almost lost’ language of Ladino is important to my next guest, both culturally and personally. Singer/songwriter Yasmin Levy learned songs in the language of Ladino from her mother in Israel, who learned them from Yasmin’s late father, a composer and musicologist. It was in that way that the medieval language of Sephardic Jews came to be featured prominently in her work, including on Levy's new album “Mano Suave.” Levy's own hope for a future for the Ladino language is combined with her desire to draw on the music of many faiths and cultures. Yasmin Levy is a sought- after performer around the world, and she is beginning her first U.S. tour here in San Diego. Yasmin, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

YASMIN LEVY (Singer/Songwriter): Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us a little bit, if you would, about your father and his musical background.

LEVY: Well, my father was a musician and a composer, and actually he dedicated his life to preserve and to collect the Sephardic songs because we are talking about songs that were passed down orally from generation to generation for 500 years and no one ever wrote down the lyrics or the melody. Those songs were kept alive and, you know, women just used to sing the secular songs to their daughters at home and men sang the religious songs in the synagogue to their sons. And that’s how we’ve managed to keep those songs alive for many years. And my father, he realized one day that someone has to collect those songs and to write down the lyrics and the melody, so actually all his life he used to go from one Sephardic family to another to record people who could sing those songs for him and then he wrote down lyrics and melodies and he managed to publish 14 books of those songs. And the people that sent for him, they passed away, so he managed to save those songs from, you know, going to the grave with the people. So…


LEVY: And I’m just, you know, singing my – singing those songs and I spread them in the world as much as I can.

CAVANAUGH: For our listeners who are unfamiliar with the Ladino language, can you tell us what it is, please?

LEVY: Of course. Jews lived in Spain, as we know, until 1492 and they spoke in Spain Spanish, the same Spanish like the Christians. But after they left Spain, the Spanish got mixed with different words of different languages depend on the country that they went to live in. So, for example, Jews that went to live in Turkey, the Spanish got mixed with Turkish words. Those who went to Bulgaria, the Spanish got mixed with Bulgarian words. And the same happened then all over the world and, actually, it created a new language which is called Ladino. So actually Ladino is an old Jewish-Spanish mixed with different words from all over the world.

CAVANAUGH: I read that there are only about 200,000 people or so who speak this language anymore, is that correct?

LEVY: Even less today. We’re talking about 150,000…


LEVY: …worldwide, and it’s a very sad story because my generation no longer speaks the language, and in 50 years from now no one will use it to daily use and the language will die. And the only thing that will survive from this tradition are those songs. And that’s why it’s a mission for me to spread them as much as I can because people who do speak today the language are 90 and 80 years old.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear one of the traditional Ladino tracks on your album. This is a song called “Como La Rosa.”

LEVY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: What would you like to say about this song?

LEVY: It’s a very old song and I actually grew up – you know, my father passed away when I was one year old. But I grew up listening to his voice and I grew up listening, you know, to him singing those songs, and this is one of the songs that he used to sing, and a very, very sad – sad song. “Como La Rosa,” it’s a – I don’t know, it’s a song for a girl that passed away, a very young girl. So, “Como La Rosa”, like the rose.

CAVANAUGH: Like the rose.

LEVY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: This is Yasmin Levy performing “Como La Rosa” from her new album, “Mano Suave.”

(audio of “Como La Rosa” performed by Yasmin Levy)

CAVANAUGH: That’s from “Como La Rosa.” Yasmin Levy performs the song from her new album “Mano Suave.” Yasmin Levy is my guest and she is about to embark on her first U.S. tour right here – beginning right here in San Diego. Yasmin, Ladino and, to an extent, Yiddish are both Jewish languages that have a declining number of speakers. What is lost when these languages die out?

LEVY: Well, you know, it’s like people asking me why is it so important for me to sing those songs and to talk about the history and, you know, to have this conversation with you. I think it’s part of me, it’s my history and I think, you know, history is kind of your – who you are and your being, and I – that’s why it’s important. I think we are losing the traditions. You know, the Ladino situation is much worse than the Yiddish because the Yiddish is in five-, three-year-old kids talking the language.


LEVY: And you can’t find it in Ladino. And it’s a shame. It’s my history. It’s my tradition. It’s who I am. And I think we are losing it. We are going to lose it and that’s why I feel so, you know, so bad about that.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of response do you receive from a modern audience, perhaps unfamiliar with the language, about the fact that you sing in this endangered language?

LEVY: I tell you – I tell you that if you would ask me – if you would tell me five or ten years ago that I will bring those songs to people from all over the world, I would never believe you. I mean, it was – it used to be such a small niche in Israel and people who used to listen to those songs were people who, you know, spoke the language and traditional Sephardic people. And nowadays we brought those songs, you know, to the USA, for example, and all over the world, Australia and to Europe. People are so into this and, you know, curious. They appreciate that because also in my concerts I also tell the stories and I speak about the history so it’s not just the beautiful music, you know, it’s the whole world that people, you know, just get to know.

CAVANAUGH: And why do you think it speaks to people in that remarkable way?

LEVY: I thought of it. I think everything today is so fast, you know. Everything goes fast with no thinking. You know, you – If I want to have the heat, you know, in the radio I can just have it, and everything happens immediately. And I think people are looking for something with soul, something, you know, from the bottom of your heart and it touches them. And there are much – there are a lot of sadness, sadness in the history of the Jews that were expelled from Spain, and I sing about it and I bring all this pain to the stage and I think it touches people hearts.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Israeli singer/songwriter Yasmin Levy as she embarks on her first U.S. tour. And, Yasmin, I don’t want to leave the impression that this is the only language in which you sing. You sing in a variety of languages. Why is that important to you to bring so many different languages and voices into your songs?

LEVY: Actually, I sing in Ladino and in Spanish. I speak several languages but I do sing only in Ladino and in Spanish. I grew up in Jersusalem, which is a melting pot of people and I’ve heard so many kinds of music and I bring all those styles, all those influences into my music. The Sephardic songs, they had a long journey. You can find, you know, influences of Andalusian and flamenco music, you can find the influence of Turkish, Arabic music. Those songs have a long – had a long journey and I just bring this journey, this history, heartfelt journey onstage. I think it’s, you know, it makes it – it makes our world richer and more beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: I guess that’s what confused me, Yasmin, because I know you bring so many different musical styles into your songs…

LEVY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …I thought you also sang in those languages as well.


CAVANAUGH: But as you – as you tour around the world, the reviews that I’ve read for your performances are quite – they praise you very highly. Do – What countries have you been in and what kind of response have you received from audiences?

LEVY: Wherever I go, I mean, I, again, I think if I told my father 40 years ago when he was alive that we will bring those songs to so many people in the world, I don’t think he would believe that. I want to say something – some story about that. Those songs were never meant to be on stage. It was a shame to be a singer as a woman in those days. So women just, you know, sang those songs for, you know, just to feel good, you know. And we managed to bring those songs to the stage and to make it like a professional kind of concert. Reactions are great. I get so much love from people all over the world and all I want to do is bring them love back through those – through sharing with them, you know, this beautiful music.

CAVANAUGH: I also understand that it’s important for you to perform with musicians that represent a variety of faiths and cultures. Why is that important to you?

LEVY: You know, when you say it now I have goosebumps all over my body. I think tolerance is my religion and I grew up, you know, in a place where you can hear and see so many wars and fights, and I don’t want that in my life. There is no room, no place for that. I want to share my life, I want to share my music, and I think it’s all about mutual respect. And, as well, what happens in Israel, you know, between Israel and Palestinians, I cry for that. I don’t want that to happen. And if I can make just a small difference, you know, I’m not going to change the world. I can’t, I’m just a singer from, you know, from Israel. But if I can make a difference through music, through sharing with other people who has different religions from me, different way of life, that’s what I want to do. And thanks to music, I can do it. And I think we can create harmony the minute that we just have to accept people the way they are, to respect them, and we will make this place, this world, much more beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: As we end this interview, Yasmin, we’re going to play the title track from the “Mano Suave” album. And you perform this track with an Egyptian singer named Natacha Atlas. What can you tell us about this song?

LEVY: This is a very old Bedouin song and it talks about a man that says I love this woman and she had – she was so gentle and beautiful. And she had soft and gentle hand but no one ever touch her hand until she give her heart to someone else. And he’s crying to – he’s telling his story to his mother. Through this collaboration with Natacha, me, as an Israeli artist, and Natacha is an Egyptian artist, we had a message, a beautiful message, of peace, you know, and people were so happy to know about this duet. And, again, we’re using music, again, to create harmony between people.

CAVANAUGH: Yasmin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEVY: Thank you. The pleasure is mine.

CAVANAUGH: Yasmin Levy’s first U.S. tour begins with a show tonight at 8:00 at The Loft on the UC San Diego campus. Her new album is called “Mano Suave,” and here is a track from that album called “Mano Suave.”

(audio of title track from “Mano Suave” by Yasmin Levy)