Yasmin Levy is a passionate woman. But not in an overt way. If passion can be understated, hers is. She isn't bursting an appendix, a la Joplin, to get her music, or her meaning, across. Hers is a meticulously measured delivery. She has given us the gift of Ladino: songs in a language we might never have heard, were it not for her. Inasmuch, she's a kind of hands-on anthropologist, by dint of this family treasure being handed down. Yet Levy harbours no illusions: she concedes Ladino will die out within a very short time. (It's a sadness our own Aboriginal people know well, having lost close to two-hundred distinct languages since invasion.) Which means, at least as long as she survives and performs, she's a kind of ark. It's quite a mantle and responsibility to take on, this universal keepsake, this heirloom, bestowed by her father, the cantor and composer Yitzhak (Isaac) Levy, born in Manisa, near Izmir, Turkey, in 1919. Collecting and recording Sephardic songs, which had existed and persisted only through oral tradition for half a millennium, was his life's work.
But it turns out Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish tongue, or tongues, Sephardi Jews driven from their homeland in the late 1400s took with them, is but one of Yasmin's. She may've been born in Jerusalem's Bakaa neighbourhood, but she's equally at home with Spanish as Hebrew. She's au fait with Persian, her paternal Turkish and flamenco music. She truly is a world singer, endowing that oft-abused term with a genuine depth of meaning. And feeling. Yasmin Levy belongs to the world. You. Me. Us. And them. Hers is a multifarious fusion. She crosses borders without visas. As such, quite apart from her musical distinction, she's an exemplar for peace and harmony. In March, 2006, Yasmin was presented with the Anna Lindh Award for cross-cultural dialogue. Even at that point, she'd collaborated with musicians from at least three cultures. Just a couple of years later, Yasmin was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Children of Peace, a British-based charity supporting Middle Eastern children. She's a lover, not a fighter.
Then, Yasmin Levy was an important singer. Now, she's a gifted songwriter too. Seven of the twelve tracks on her new album, Libertad, have been written by her. And, naturally, this new collection was the focus of her recent Australian tour. But before we get into the main course, let's discuss the appetiser.
Abby Dobson, Lara Goodridge & accordion maestro Marcello Maio (who also features on piano) gave us Baby et Lulu (plus one). Two Aussie chicks, singing in French, is a charming thing. Dobson hails from Leonardo's Bride; Goodridge is a member of Fourplay. Together, they transport us in a slow boat down the Seine, or accompany us on a stroll beside it.
Sur Les Quais du Vieux Paris will have you popping a champagne cork, spreading a picnic rug, breaking a crusty baguette and making a decent dent in a whole camembert. It's Sunday, after all. In a sense, it's always Sunday in Paris. Oh, that's right. We're in Sydney. I forgot myself for a moment. Louis Poterat's lyric is as fresh as the mild spring day it seems to celebrate and Ralph Erwin's music could hardly be more romantic. With hindsight, it's hard to believe Lucienne Delyle, who was, I think, the first to record it, in 1939, could have managed to evoke such an unbuttoned mood, given the prevailing political climate, but perhaps it was just what the doctor ordered. In any case, D, G & M reinvent it with sybaritic ease, with the warm sway of Maio's accordion standing in for a balmy breeze and Baby et Lulu's shiny harmonies, imbued with a subtle vibrato, akin to the dizzy, fizzy mouthfeel of vintage Bollinger.
As for Il N'y A Pas D'amour Heureux, they've all done it. George Brassens. Francoise Hardy. Youssou N'Dour. Of course, Brassens wrote it, around a poem, by Louis Aragon. In character, it's the polar opposite of The Quays Of Old Paris, as you might expect from a song titled There Is No Love And Happiness. Dobson & Goodridge's vocals entwine; two lovesick songbirds in a melancholic pas de deux. Superb.
C'est Le Top, a song written by Dobson, is just as the title implies, the absolute best. Despite a self-deprecating introduction, it's evident Dobson has insinuated herself inside the sensibility of chanson, with aplomb. It is bright, charming, elegantly simple and thoroughly delightful.
Sympathique is similar to Dobson's nascent French compositions, inasmuch as it's from the relatively recent past, having first appeared on Pink Martini's first full-length album in 1997. Neither is Pink Martini French, but American. Nonetheless, the song takes on the airs, graces and essential qualities of French songs; it, too, possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. Though certainly not in tone or colour (which again swings back to lightness), it shares something with Brassens' tune as well, inasmuch as being built on the foundations of a poem, Hotel, by Guillaume Apollinaire. Again, Dobson's husky, yet delicate, quivering vocals put one immediately in mind of berets, checkerboard cafe chairs and long-legged passers-by. Well, that's what works for me, anyway.
Gainsbourg's heartbreaking Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M'envais (also covered sublimely by Rufus Wainwright) is reiterated in a patois we can all understand; one that hardly needs translation, thanks to its beautiful, aching melody. Again, Dobson's fragile vocal not only does it justice, but pays it and SG homage. 'I came to tell you that I'm going and your tears can't change anything. Brutal.
Padam Padam hardly needs an introduction, being a Piaf staple. Of course, an effective rendition depends on more than mere singing: we need to feel the heartbeat and, again, Dobson obliges, while Maio's waltzing accordion seats us at a tiny table at Le Gerny, a cabaret club in the Pigalle, where Edith was discovered by Louis Leplee. And to think this definitive song was co-written by an engineer (Henri Alexandre Contet and Norbert Glanzberg).
Joe Dassin's sweet, jazz-inflected Champs Élysées had Maio jump to the piano, enabling the girls' harmonies to bounce through the song to cap the set.
What I haven't mentioned so much here is Goodridge's assertive, ever-adaptable and versatile violin playing, which has a clarity that matches her singing.
Shortly after, Yasmin Levy took to the stage, preceded by her superlative band: Ishay Amir (her husband and minder), percussion; Yechiel Hasson, guitar; Alex Stanford, piano; Avishai Bar-Natan, flutes; Tom Driessler, double bass. Amir isn't announced as musical director, but seems to take on that mantle. His kit is unorthodox, comprising (among other instruments, if I recall correctly), a cajon, cymbal and, I think, ghatam (a kind of south Indian claypot drum), being, in essence, an earthenware pot that produces resonant, ringing sounds when struck with the fingers. Hasson was trained classically, but soon embraced flamenco, so his playing is a nexus of the two. His rhythms tend to suggest the latter, but he employs a wide range of melodies and harmonies that imply other influences. For my money, he's one of the very finest acoustic guitarists on the planet. He possesses prodigious technical skills, but that's not where his greatness lies. Rather, it's in his ability to imbue feeling, with the utmost subtlety and sensitivity. Stanford is a distinctive player hailing from London who knows precisely when to sit back and when to sit up. The Cuban influences to which he alludes sit very comfortably with the other ethnic leanings. Bar-Natan is, originally, from Israel, but now lives in Sydney; his cache of flutes overlaying colours and textures perhaps more South American than anything else. To watch him, Driessler seemed off in a world of his own, but he was certainly present and influential as part of the ensemble, really anchoring the music.
El Amor Contigo is a YL composition from the Sentir album of a couple of years ago and opened the set, with Levy taking the flamenco mantle more-or-less head on, but her take has a gentility about it, thanks to some syncopated jazz leanings and even a seeming reference to reggae. It's easy, breezy, danceable sway and velvety melody are betrayed by Yasmin's anguished, fractured, grief-stricken vocal, which opines the suffering implicit in sustaining an impossible love. This is Yasmin singing up; her presence is large and uninhibited. From the unassuming to the consuming: this is a song that builds to an emotional crescendo. And, even amidst, its authentically Latin aesthetic, there's a particular shade of sadness characteristic, or at least reminiscent, of Jewish liturgical music and which might also be relatable to the nostalgic quintessence of Argentine tango or even the saudade of fado (a kissing cousin of Ladino, at least inasmuch as being a hand-me-down, orally-transmitted genre). These shadings are also discernible in the latest material.
From the new album, Libertad, comes Cada Dia, co-written with Hasson, which again channels flamenco, but in a more plaintive way. Levy's finesse with vibrato is in its ever-subtle evidence, as her mood swings from resignation to heartbreak; as you do, on finding your lover in the arms of another. Bar-Natan's ney (an Iranian end-blown flute) emulates, pays homage to and complements Levy's vocal technique (or vice-versa). Melodically, it's achingly, irresistibly, incorrigibly romantic. A soupçon of Arabic flavour may be found to infuse the guitar sounds here or there, too.
Mi Korason is a tune that will touch any Jewish soul and, I reckon, most others, to boot. There's something very recognisable and familiar, in that sense about the refrain (no accident, as it's a Ladino traditional), but it's spiced with an Afro-Cuban jazz setting that's sure to have you swaying and swooning in your seat. Such sweet sorrow.
Aman Doktor is a traditional Turkish song, recorded on the new album and one that's also well-known in Greece and in Greek. There are those that will bicker about precise geographical origins, but Levy's about borderless music and pleads for the doctor who can heal her wounds, inflicted, of course, by love. Rhythmically and in its melodic structure, the song bears the Greco-Arabesque hallmarks of Turkish music, emanating, as it does, from a country at a breathtaking cultural criss-crossroads between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and South-Central Asia. Levy and her band render it with typical understatement.
Neither is Naci en Alamo, which follows, an original (one of five from her latest and sixth album). It, too, hails from Greece, where it's known as The Song Of Gypsies; written by Giorgos Katsaris and Dionisis Tsaknis. And yet there are those who would claim Turkish and even Bulgarian origins. It was recorded in Spanish for Tony Gatlif's Vengo, which probably only intensifies confusion and conflict. Suffice to say Levy's version (replete, as I recall, with palmas) was and is utterly transporting. Your soul may temporarily leave your body.
At a couple of points, amidst relatively minimal patter, Levy self-mocks along the lines of her incurable penchant for sad songs, which she strongly and unapologetically favours. It brings knowing acknowledgement from the audience, because it hardly needs to be said: so very many of her songs are swathed in pain.
Firuze is a woman's name, meaning turquoise, but the eponymous tune is anything but as cool as that colour would suggest. Anything but. It burns and swells with ardour. Levy seems especially and surprisingly comfortable in these turned-up, pom-pommed Turkish slippers (but then, her father was Turkish) and not prone to the over-singing, for emotional effect, for which she can, arguably, sometimes be guilty. Written by Aysel Gurel, a lyricist and, of all other things, actress, it was originally brought to prominence by pop singer Sezen Aksu, but Levy has found real beauty and gravitas in the piece. It could be an ode to every woman: 'like limpid water, sometimes like a volcano, sometimes like a mad wind; haste in your eyes, years are slow to you'.
Skalerikas is another traditional tune; this time a Ladino one, that opens with a contagious, driving cajon beat, which steers the whole song, otherwise carried by a simple vocal hook and an amorous flamenco flavour communicated via guitar and palmas. For it's disarming simplicity of arrangement alone, it's one of my very favourite Levy songs.
Tal Vez is Spanish for maybe, or perhaps. But one thing's for certain. Structurally, melodically, rhythmically, instrumentally and, above all, dramatically, it's very much steeped in the traditions and flavours of tango and Levy's voice is at its very best, finding rapport with the moving mood of this, another, elegantly economical composition, in which Hasson's guitar is very much the romantic hero.
The ironically-titled La Alegria (happiness) has gypsy written all over it, opening with mournful guitar and an anguished, soaring vocal that has relativity to Moorish, Middle Eastern and Indian music. It showcases yet another dimension of Levy's extensive vocal vocabulary. It is nakedly authentic in its adoption of ethnic influences and bursting with torment, echoed loudly by Levy's reading of her own song: 'I drink and drink and drink, in order to forget you; I sleep and sleep and sleep, so that I don't think of you; damn world, to live to pay for the sin of loving you; damn you, let go of me!'
Una Pastora, a playback duet with Levy's late father of a Sephardic song, also recorded for the Sentir set, got off to a false start. Her perfectionism led her to recapitulate the opening bars, despite the embarrassment of doing so. It broke the enchantment briefly, but only briefly. It is, as the name suggests, a classic pastoral, but underpinning it's sweetly sad lilt is an epic tragedy. While playback duets are now arguably, generically speaking, tending towards the hackneyed, the poignancy of this example is hard to deny, since it brings back the father who died when Yasmin was but a one-year-old, at the very same time as revivifying a proud tradition, now only known by around one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Sephardim.
I loved a shepherdess, A beautiful girl. From my youth I adored her, There was noone else I loved. From my youth I adored her, There was noone else I loved.
One day, while we were sitting in the garden I said to her, I die of love for you, my flower, Said to her, I die of love for you, my flower.
In her arms, she held me, For love, she kissed me, She replied and with sweetness, You are the one I love, She replied and with sweetness, You are the one I love.
I grew and I looked for her, Another had taken her and I had lost her, She had forgotton me. I always loved her. She forgot me. I always loved her.
Adio Kerida is another atmospheric folksong with a sense of the liturgical that invites singalong from the first chorus and, before long, Yasmin had us all in gentle thrall, as we chimed in, as best we could, to this lovely melody, of a kind that, if it played in your head for the rest of your days, it would be a blessing. I think if we all held hands and sang it together, in a daisy chain of humanity, there would and, come to think of it, could be no war. Bar-Natan's ney is haunting, only but adding (albeit in a way that sounds further eastern) to the sacredness of the sound. Driessler's bass transports the tune. Vocally, Levy is restrained, being careful, it seems, not to endow it with unnecessary affectation. Lyrically, it's heartbreaking.
When your mother gave you to the world, She did not give you a heart for a second love. Goodbye, my dear. I don't want to live, because you embittered my life. Go and look for another love. Knock on other doors, wait for another passionate love. As for me, you are dead.
Ouch! It's darkness and uncompromising, cut-to-the-quick cruelty is completely at odds with the tune, which manifests such peace and equilibrium. So it's just as well we're importuned to sing it in Ladino (or Judezmo, as it's known locally). This is the sublime refrain. It is the Jewish Kumbaya, if you will.
Adio, adio kerida,
No kero la vida,
Me l'amargates tu.
Like Adio Kerida, Una Noche Mas (One More Night) comes from the Mano Suave album. But whereas the protagonist in the former prefers to think of her former lover as dead, the one in the latter pleads for another night of deception, in deference to unbridled lust. It's colour is that of bull's blood; of the rich, ripely red tomatoes hurled en masse in the annual tomatina. And Levy extracts all the juice.
La Ultima Cancion (The Last Song) sees a return to the spirit of Argentine tango, with it's clipped, syncopated phrasing and Latin instrumentation. The only real shame of it was not to have the muted and unmuted trumpet solos that prevail in the recorded version and it might've been politic to invite the prodigious Maio to play with the band on accordion, or bandoneon.
La Nave del Olvido was written by Dino Ramos and, I think, originally recorded by Mexican singer, Jose Jose. The two renditions could hardly be more divergent: Jose's pop sensibility giving way to Levy's heartfelt affinity with the lyric, which pleads for another day, another chance. As recorded, Turkish strings are a distinguishing feature, but they weren't really missed on stage; cajon, bass, guitar and piano form a wonderfully warm, romantic compact on their own, with Levy, again, in her element.
But what does a singer like Levy do for an encore? Well, the title track of the new set, Libertad, for starters, followed by Olvidate de Mi. Libertad is a Levy original and more up-tempo than much of her fare. Cajon and guitar conspire to deliver a suavely danceable arrangement that makes for a memorable parting gesture. This song is notable, too, for being one of only three on the album in Ladino. It has an openness about it, a palpable feeling of freedom; somewhat ironic, as she wrote it in response to women she has seen, in her travels, who enjoy precious little, if any, of it. This backstory, of course, turns something pleasurable into something poignant. Poignancy being something one has come to expect from Levy, notwithstanding concessions to commerciality. Speaking of notes on which to end and irony, what could be more anachronistic than Olvidate de Mi (Forget Me), one of those hooks that suddenly came to Levy, as she claims ideas and melodies do. She doesn't write songs, it seems, but plucks them from the ether. Olvidate de Mi hardly makes for a happy ending. 'My beloved aunt, who was my best friend, died a year ago. I've always been attached to people older than me. My aunt's beloved husband died of cancer when I was fifteen. Beforehand, she asked him what to do: should she die, or go on living? She would have easily killed herself. He told her he wanted her to live, to forget him and find another love. She did not find love and twenty years after him, she died of cancer. When I heard these words, Olvidate de mi, I knew that it would be a poem he would write her. Forget me because it is my time to go. Don't die with me. Forget me. Till we meet again.'
Yasmin Levy has returned to Australia a much more mature performer, if still a somewhat inexplicably under-confident one. She is, clearly, still in ascendancy; growing and flowering; showing ever-increasing vocal versatility. I suspect she's not even yet at her peak: as good as her latest material is, I've a sense there's much more to come, more than, perhaps, even she knows. After all, she might now be well into her thirties, a wife and mother, but it's easy to forget she didn't start singing till her twenties. (Before that, her musical expression was pianistic.) In preserving, adoring and adapting Ladino (which has been, over time, a collective term for a suite of languages) she is honouring not just her heritage, but the human heritage. Moreover, her approach to that heritage is in keeping with its original spirit and richness, which took the Spanish language and infused and spiced it with linguistic condiments from surrounding cultures: Portuguese; Turkish; Greek; Arabic; Aramaic; Hebraic; Slavic; Italian; even French. If what we still need is a great big melting-pot, Yasmin Levy has the spoon.
Australian Tour 2012
Venue: Factory Theatre | 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville, Sydney, NSW
Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2012