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Yasmin Levi: Music is our savior

by - 28 September

"The Israeli singer has found a way of uniting past and present, East and West.” The Times

"I started as a Ladino singer, before this music was known around the world. No one would listen to Ladino songs but somehow we managed to help breathe new life into them and today it has become well recognised. But I'm more than a Ladino singer. I see myself as a World Music singer, singing in modern Spanish as well as Ladino, and bringing the flavours I love".
Yasmin grew up in Jerusalem, which she describes as a melting pot of peoples and cultures, listening to Turkish versions of Moroccan music, classical, chanson, jazz, Jewish and Muslim music, and church music. Yasmin's father, Yitzhak Levy, was born in Turkey in 1919 and worked as both a composer and cantor. After the creation of the State of Israel, he was appointed head of the Ladino department at Israel's national radio station. His life's work was devoted to the collection and preservation of the songs of Sephardic Jews: these Ladino songs had been passed down orally from generation to generation over a period of 500 years. During his lifetime he published 4 books containing Sephardic romances and another 10 volumes of liturgical songs.
Her father died when she was just a year old. Yasmin learned the songs from her mother.
Her debut album earned her a nomination as "Best Newcomer" for the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards 2005, followed in 2005 with her second album La Juderia. In 2006, she was nominated again, then in the category "Culture Crossing".

I talked to Yasmin about the importance of music as an universal religion.

Yasmin, what does it mean for you to sing in Ladino language? What’s in the soul of this language?
Those songs were never meant to be on stage, people sang them for the soul. It helped the Jews that were expelled from Spain, to survive all the difficulties of lives, and it kept them living their history, their heritage and that is what it means to me. It is my soul, my blood, my heritage, my mother and father, my memories.

You mix Sefardic, flamenco and Middle Eastern music. How long was the journey to find the right balance in this mix? To find the confidence in you to do such fusion? 
I was always brave, all my life. And when I started to mix those things, people kept saying “no, no, no” but I listened to my heart, and time made his things, and I made mistakes along with great decisions, and so step by step I created my own musical world.

How this rich music transformed you personally? 
It is me in every way. I grew up in Jerusalem which is a melting pot, as people came to live in Jerusalem from all around the world. I grew up listening to almost every kind of music, so I am a result of this musical richness; it is the fountain from which I create.

You said: “I’m the happiest of people with a big sadness in my heart“. How could so extremely different emotions live in one person – the great happiness and the great sadness? Is the music your natural way out of this contradiction?
I am happy. And I am sad if I am really alone hearing my heart. But it is good, sadness is my blessing, I create from sadness. When I am really happy I cannot create, and then I am really miserable. This sadness is not something that I can explain; it is like something from previous lives. I just feel and live it.

Was the music who chooses you or vice versa? 
Oh no, it sure did choose me, I did everything I could to avoid from becoming a singer\musician. Believe me 😊

If you have to define yourself with a song or a composition, what would it be? What’s the sound of your soul? 
I would say “La Alegria” all the sadness and the madness that is in me, in this song.

How did you master the universal language to touch people from everywhere in the world? 
It is thanks to Jerusalem, where I was born and raised. It is a melting pot, people came to live in Jerusalem from all around the world, and so I grew up listening to many kinds of music, and this melting pot is the fountain from which I create. Then I get messages from people from different countries telling me that my songs sound like they came from their homelands, and it is so beautiful to see that so many different people feel the same thing for the same song, but the reason is that my musical fountain is built by music from all these countries.

You said: “My legacy is tolerance“. You have duets with Turkish and with Middle Eastern singers. What’s the role of music in building bridges between cultures? 
Some people would never speak to me because I am Jewish or Israeli. My band has Turkish musicians together with Iranian musicians, and so goes on and on but when we play, we need no other language. We love each other through music; we share our worlds, faiths, and traditions, through music. Music is our savior, it is what we got as a gift from above, if there was no religion, music would be the religion.

How could we live alongside people of a different cultural background?
So easy, so easy, if only we understand that we are no better than anyone else. Definitely no better than people who are different than us by the way of their lives, by their religion or color of skin. We must live and let live. We must open our hearts and live with mutual respect.

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