Israeli-born Yasmin Levy is one of the most celebrated stars in world music today. A recent recipient of the prestigious Anna Lindh Award for promoting cross-cultural dialogue, she performs largely in Ladino - an ancient form of singing dating back to 15th century Spain, often compared to the blues and Portuguese fado.

Yasmin Levy is currently touring Australia and recently spoke to Australian Stage's Brad Syke.

Yasmin LevyYasmin, you've received an award at the Babel Med Festival, in Marseille, from the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation, for cross-cultural dialogue. Can you tell us what prestige that award carries, generally, but also in your mind?
To be honest, I had never heard of the Anna Lindh Foundation until one day, at the end of my performance in Marseille, someone approached, to present me with this wonderful award. The Foundation, I discovered, works to promote cross-cultural dialogue and so it was an honour for me to receive this recognition of the way I try to integrate different cultures and values in my music.

What is the value of cross-cultural dialogue and why are you, apparently, so committed to it?
As a musician, I know I can’t change the world but, at the same time, I feel that, through music, we can learn more about different peoples, cultures, religions, ways of life; and, somehow, music manages to break down artificial boundaries.

Your voice has been described as ‘unforgettable’. With what qualities do you feel such accolades may be identifying? What do you feel are the strengths in your own voice and vocal presentation?
One of the things I’ve changed in the delivery of my songs is the technical approach.  Ladino songs were always sung with a ‘head’ voice, a bit like opera. Having spent a short time studying flamenco music in Spain, I changed my vocal approach and began to use my ‘chest’ voice, which allows me to sing with more passion and emotion.
You've enjoyed phenomenal success (not least being nominated for the BBC World Music Awards the last 3 years). How do you deal with it and, for that matter, criticism?
I honestly never believed I’d have the opportunity to travel around the world bringing this music and these songs, which I’ve heard since childhood, to so many different people. When people react positively to the music it serves to reinforce my commitment to do my best. I’m always trying to improve my performance. 

In what measure is your music Sephardi and in what measure Flamenco?
My music is totally Sephardi; that is where these songs come from. I incorporate flamenco influences in some of the arrangements and sometimes in my own songwriting.

What do your Jewish roots mean to you, musically and otherwise?
My Jewish roots mean everything to me. I grew up in a household where Jewish cantorial music was played; where my mum used to sing the Romances, as well as the liturgical songs, as she went about her household chores. They are very much a part of who I am as a singer and person.

What do you feel, when you sing?
When I sing, I’m full of the sadness and emotion these songs express. As I sing the song, I live the song, in that very moment. 

Can Ladino, linguistically and culturally, survive and prosper? How has it managed to do so for half a millennium?
Ladino is a language that has been passed down from generation to generation, largely by word of mouth. Sadly, my generation no longer speaks Ladino. I understand Ladino only thanks to the modern Spanish I speak; but it’s not a language I, or my generation, use. So, in a short period of time, the language will disappear as it is only the older generation, who sadly are dying away, that still speaks the language. It is my hope that by singing these songs, at least the music will be saved as a small piece of this once large and beautiful culture.
{xtypo_quote_right}When I sing, I’m full of the sadness and emotion these songs express. As I sing the song, I live the song, in that very moment.{/xtypo_quote_right}
Do you think medieval songs still have relevance and power today? (If so, is it because the language of the heart never changes?)
A good song connects on an emotional level, which has its own power. As such, there is no relationship to when the song was written. A great song transcends time, because of this.

Do you have a personal fondness for romansas, above kantigas, and can you describe the difference?
No, I like them both! The kantigas come from the 18th century and tell stories of the Jewish experience. The romansas originate much earlier and trace their origin to Christian culture. Over the years, those songs were adopted by Jews who preserved them as memories of the culture from which they came and, over time, the songs themselves came to be regarded as part of the Jewish canon.

Do you feel your music and sensibilities have changed, since your debut album, Romance & Yasmin? If so, in what way, or ways?
My music is still largely based around Ladino. But as an artist I think I’ve moved on from where I was back then. My singing style has changed. I’ve started to write songs, some of which appear on La Juderia and Mano Suave. And I’ve tried to incorporate different musical influences, including flamenco and Middle Eastern styles, which I love, into my current music.

Do you think and dream in Hebrew, Ladino, or Spanish?
My mother tongue is Hebrew, yet I find myself thinking and creating in Spanish.

Is your art a kind of locura; obsession; necessity?
My music is everything to me; it is both who and what I am.

Yasmin Levy is currently touring Australia. Further information»

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