If Jewish diasporic music now has a strong international presence – think of the late Ofra Haza’s Yemenite pop or the international klezmer bands – there’s one significant form that’s so far remained in the shadows. No longer. Ladino music, a sound that originated in the cultural crosscurrents of medieval Spain, is getting its long overdue break with virtuoso singer Yasmin Levy.
La Juderia, the second album from the Jerusalem-based Levy, offers a sonic world that’s familiar. There’s the mix of flamenco rhythms and trills from Levy’s band – she favours a traditional instrumentation of oud, qanun and ney. But listen closely and you hear 500 years of history on La Juderia.
Levy calls the album a ‘musical reconciliation’ and you can hear her point. The wide space of ‘Naci en Alamo’ (I Was Born in Alamo) is an excellent place to hear how sinuous Levy’s voice can be. But it’s also dramatic and highly coloured. On ‘La Serena’ (The Mermaid), she simply unleashes her voice: it soars, dips down and whips around. Highly flamenco-ized, this is a traditional Sephardic song, and it ends with the ghostly recording of Levy’s musicologist father playing the song 30 years ago.
One of the most affecting is ‘Keter’, a prayer that is here bookended by recordings made in a synagogue 15 years ago. Levy here is at her unadorned best, the vocal line strong yet yearning. A little bell keeps rhythm for her, and it is as if time peels away.