For the Jerusalem-born singer Yasmin Levy, her “melting pot” city was a place to imbibe a “big beautiful mixture” of musical styles. Yet when she was trying to identify a haunting Persian melody that her mother played her as a child, it was a London cabbie who helped her out. On a visit to the city, she sang a few phrases to her Iranian-born taxi driver, who not only identified the song but offered to bring her the record.
“Soghati”, which Levy heard sung by late Iranian diva Hayedeh, is covered on her latest album Libertad. Levy sings it as “Recuerdo” in Spanish, the language in which she writes her own lyrics, and as a lament in her subtle, flamenco-inflected voice.
She began her career as a revivalist of Ladino, an archaic Judaeo-Spanish language edging towards extinction, reinterpreting the ballads, lyrics and liturgies of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. But her fifth album, on which her own compositions outnumber Ladino classics, suggests a growing impulse to branch out, though without losing her distinctiveness. It is, as she knows, a fine balance. “I have to do it intelligently, not to throw away what I have, and not to give away my audience,” she says.
If Levy, 36, began as a niche singer, she has now built an international audience. We met at her manager’s office in London’s Soho, as she prepared for a Barbican concert and a world tour that will take her to Australia, Poland and Hong Kong, via the Tel Aviv Opera House. She does not sing in Hebrew, which may limit her appeal at home, but she has a large following in Turkey, where she sings frequently, and Iran – although as an Israeli she is barred from the country. Her seven-piece touring band includes musicians from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Britain and Israel, among them her husband and percussionist Ishay Amir. The couple tour with their son Michael, aged one, who “plays every instrument he sees,” she says. “People said that when he arrived, I’d sing happier songs. It didn’t happen.”
On an album that encompasses Cuban piano and chanson, the overarching elements are flamenco guitar – a mainstay of Levy’s music since her second album La Juderia (2005) – and the soaring and dipping of up to 60 strings, recorded in Turkey by the Strings Orchestra Istanbul. “I grew up on Turkish strings,” she says, also citing the Turkish singer Ibrahim Tatlises. The two elements “have never been put together before. Turkish and Spanish people had a history of wars 500 years ago, but I bring them together musically.”
She sees Turkey as her second home, and says, “they consider me Turkish because of my roots.” Her father Yitzhak was born in Manisa, near Izmir, in 1919, into a Sephardic Turkish family. Her mother Kochava traces her Turkish ancestry to before the Spanish “Reconquista”.
Yitzhak Levy, who died when she was just a year old, was a composer and cantor, and head of the Ladino department of Israel National Radio. In the 1950s and 1960s he recorded Ladino songs that had been passed down orally, compiling four books of songs and 10 of liturgies. Songs on Libertad such as “La Rosa Enflorece” and “Aman Doktor” are from her father’s books.
Yet she sees “no future” for the Ladino language. “In two generations, no one will speak it as something alive. But what will survive are the songs, because the music has its own power.” Levy upsets purists by eschewing the traditional “head voice” for an emotional sound that rises from the chest. “I’m not a traditional Ladino singer. Some felt I’m touching their holy songs and ruining them.”
One objection is that she orientalises Judaeo-Spanish songs. She says: “the Jews of Spain learned to sing prayers from Muslims. So in synagogues they sing liturgical songs with an Arab sound.” Just as Ladino gained words from the lands the Sephardim settled, the songs gained their own orchestration. “I love the Turkish because it’s the saddest. The Moroccan is less my cup of tea, because most are happy.” Yet “I never change the lyrics or the melody. I know I have no right. They’re part of what I am, but they’re not mine.”
In a quietly moving track on her album Sentir (2009), Levy and her father sing the same song, “Una Pastora”, his voice taken from a half-century-old recording. “I grew up with a big image of my father. What would he say? I’m out of tune? Finally, I was a grown woman. I said, he’s dead, give him a gift.” Her controlled passion complements his purer vocals. In concerts, “everybody cried. Every time I came to that song, I felt my father taking care of me. It was my way to touch him.”
In 2010, when relations between Turkey and Israel were at a low point, Levy gave a concert in Istanbul, at the invitation of the mayor. “Israelis asked me why I was going, but there was no doubt for me. My way to bring tolerance is through music.” She would like to perform in Arab countries and Iran, but an invitation to Dubai was revoked “when they realised I was Israeli”. She believes efforts to boycott Israeli culture are “wrong, because we musicians are a voice for mutual respect”. She has recorded with the Belgian-Arab singer Natacha Atlas, and gave a concert last year in northern Israel with a Palestininian singer, Shamshum, to a “mainly Palestinian audience”. In 2006 she won an Anna Lindh Foundation award for cross-cultural collaboration.
“I’m a person of peace, not a politician,” she says. “I never spoke about politics, but to me, the problem starts when you think you’re best and should change the other – like converts. I collaborate with Muslim, Jewish, Christian and atheist musicians. We accept and respect each other. That’s how I think we should live, and I say it through music.”
As Levy steps out from her father’s shadow, she is singing fewer Ladino songs. “I love them, but I wanted more freedom.” She intends her next album to have even broader appeal, to “take it out of the ‘world music’ niche. I don’t like to put music in a ghetto. I want to open borders – which is what I’ve been about all my life.”
Yasmin Levy plays the Barbican, London, November 7. ‘Libertad’ is out now on Adama Music