Is Yasmin Levy´s career too well-managed to be avant? Are her photo spreads too glossy? Does being the umpteenth person to record a theatrical version of Leonard Cohen´s “Hallelujah” disqualify her? Well, it shouldn´t, because she is not only a singer and arranger of superior skill and imagination, her work infuses Ladino culture with a vitality like no other living artist. Choosing her for the lead role in a movie about the greatest of all the Greek rebetika singers, Rosa Eskenazi, with whom she shares a Sephardic heritage, sounds like pefect casting.
“Libertad”, her new collection of songs, is not only delivered with emotional investment, but its mixture of cultures and styles flows with rare seamlessness. Ladino song has made her famous (her Turkish-born father Yitzhak was a preservationist of Sephardic culture), but on “Libertad” she sings only three in the family tongue. She harvests material from Spain, Portugal and the Argentine and Jewish and Turkish and Arabic impulses; originals are mixed with covers, traditional songs and a Hebrew poem by the great Medieval Andalusian poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. A duet with Mallorcan singer Buika is sweet plums and bitter chocolate. Building on her familiar foundation of flamenco, the fado and tango also cha-cha onto the stage, as do Persian and Hollywood pop – a rendition of the famous Iranian love song, Hayedeh´s “Soghati” (as “Recuerdo”), Nelson Riddle strings on “Olvidate de Mi”.
Producer Ben Mandelson has created clear, clean air for the Tel Aviv-based backing trio of bass, drums and guitar. Guitarist Yechial Hasson is magical throughout. When percussionist Itamar Doari and double-bassist Gilad Efrat are left to accompany her alone on “Aman Doktor”, it is flesh against flesh. Whenever they appear, but on “Firuze” in particular, the Strings Orchestra Istanbul brings Turkey and Israel back in harmony in a way no politician ever could.
Yasmin Levy is shaping up to be a leading force in a new syncretism of Pan-Mediterranean culture.