I had the rare good fortune recently to experience a fine singer working at the top of her form. Rarer yet, I was privileged to enjoy the performance in a small and intimate setting. Perched high above Los Angeles at the Skirball Center, the singer was Yasmin Levy was taking part in the Skirball Center’s current series, “Elles, Voices of Women” celebrating ideals of “tolerance, friendship and shared humanity.”
Yasmin Levy is part of the trend of “world music” that has so greatly enriched the music scene over the past two decades. While she is not yet as well known as such great divas of world music as Cesaria Evora or the Portuguese Fado singer, Mariza, with a handful of well-reviewed albums over the last seven years, she appears well on her way to joining them. Born in Jerusalem, the daughter of a well-known ethnomusicologist father, Levy has fashioned an oeuvre that is a mélange of different styles. She mixes music from Sephardic and Middle Eastern traditions with the Ladino songs that her father sought to preserve. For those unfamiliar with Ladino, it is the language spoken by Jews in the Iberian Peninsula until their expulsion at the end of the 15th century. It is a mixture of medieval Spanish with Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish and various other languages.
As you might expect, this is passionate music and it requires a voice capable of fully expressing its deep feeling, and Levy’s voice is entirely up to the task. It is rich, sensuous and powerful, with a broad range of emotional expression that allows her to range easily from traditional Bedouin tunes such as the eponymous “Mano Suave” from her most recent CD, to the achingly beautiful, flamenco-influenced, “La Alegria.” I particularly enjoyed “Irme Kero,” a sultry mix of Levy’s sinuous tones over a fast paced guitar and flute that somehow managed to conjure up desert landscapes even in the air-conditioned, urban comfort of the Skirball. On stage, Levy is confident and relaxed, at ease with both band and audience, introducing songs while explaining to us how she learned them from her mother’s singing in the kitchen or asking the audience to guess which band member was her husband. And this was one of the benefits of seeing her in a small venue: the chance to really pay attention to the fine musicianship of her band. A four piece made up of percussion, upright bass, guitar, and an extremely fine flautist, who also plays clarinet and the traditional duduk and zurna, they clearly know each other inside out and relish each other’s playing.
If you get the chance to see Yasmin Levy and her band, take it. You will be the loser if you don’t.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
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