CULTURE

Spreading the songs of a dying language

Yasmin Levy is a singer who must feel very deeply what she sings. Her work, however, contains an interesting contradiction: She is a young and beautiful woman who interprets songs in Sephardic Jewish, a dialect that is practically dead. Yet, Sephardic has suddenly become trendy in sold-out concert halls around the world and in music collections such as that of Buddha Bar. Shortly before Levy’s two performances in Athens tonight and tomorrow, the 33-year-old singer spoke to Kathimerini about the way she chose to deliver songs in a language that is disappearing, about people’s reactions and about her participation in a documentary on rebetiko music and on the genre’s legendary representative, Roza Eskenazi. «I owe my dedication to the Ladino music and culture to my father,» she said. Isaac Levy was a musician and musicologist who dedicated his life to the collection, maintenance and recording of Ladino songs – the language that Sephardic Jews brought with them from Spain – which have survived only orally, passing on from one generation to another. «My family was expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, along with the rest of the Sephardic population, which then spread out to different parts of the Mediterranean. But the expelled Spanish Jews kept their songs alive both in the synagogue and at home.» Today it is questionable whether more than 150,000 people around the world speak this particular dialect and most of those who do are elderly. «There is no doubt that Ladino is dying away as a language. But the songs and music can survive,» she added. Upon listening to «Adio Querida,» a much-loved Ladino song, elderly Sephardic Jews of the diaspora are moved to tears. But what happens with a younger audience? «If I chose to sing these songs in the traditional way, namely a cappella, then few people would sit through more than two or three songs at my concerts. I realized early on that it was necessary to somehow open up these songs to many different types of music, like Turkish and Cuban music or flamenco.» It may seem hard to believe that songs sung in an almost dead language would fill New York’s Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House. Levy didn’t expect it but she pointed out that «these songs are so beautiful, they do not need my help. I think I only manage to make them more accessible.» Yet it took a long time and a lot of effort for Levy to appease Sephardic Jews in Israel; at first, the way she chose to approach their music was deemed as less than dignified. «It took them seven years to accept that what I am attempting is my own contribution to the history of this music, with all the respect and responsibility that such a mission carries. Most of the time I have a sense of fear when I am interpreting these songs, because while they are certainly part of my life, they are not mine.» It is with her own songs that she said she feels complete freedom, only to end up striking a balance between maintaining one music tradition and creating another. This is not Levy’s first visit to Greece. She was last in Athens just 10 days ago, to complete the filming of «My Sweet Canary,» a documentary about the life of rebetiko queen Roza Eskenazi. Levy will appear singing songs from Roza’s repertoire in Ladino and Greek. «Somebody gave me an album of Roza’s three years ago. I very much appreciate her work and her talent.» Levy spoke few words about Eskenazi, her way of showing her respect for the great lady of rebetiko. But her participation in the film has meant something more than just a music retrospective. «I returned to the past in a way, believing more strongly than ever that no matter how hard you try, you cannot change people. As a civilization, we have been through a lot but we are still here. I realized that my true religion is tolerance.» When the discussion turns to contemporary Greek music, which is very popular in Israel, Levy cannot hide her enthusiasm about Eleni Vitali, with whom she collaborated recently for a song that is on her new album «Sentir.» «I am familiar with the work of many Greek vocalists and they are all terrific but I never feel the enthusiasm that I feel when I listen to Vitali. To me, she is the queen.» Gazarte, 32-34 Voutadon, Gazi, tel 210.345.2277, at 9 p.m.