Although the language dates back over 500 years to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, a cursory Google search for "Ladino literature" is enough to confirm that artifacts are sparser and the danger of extinction greater than they are for Yiddish language and literature. While the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia estimates that three million speakers of Yiddish remain today worldwide, not exactly a robust number for the Ashkenazic tongue (there were an estimated 11 million before the Holocaust), folksinger Yasmin Levy told her concert audience at McGlohon Theatre that there are currently about 145,000 speakers of the Sephardic sister language.
The situation for Ladino song is not as dire as the situation for Ladino literature and theatre, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Levy and a handful of other roving and/or recording troubadours. Levy's ardor for Ladino was an heirloom handed down to her by her father, Yitzhak Levy, who was the first head of the Ladino department at Israel's national radio station. So a highlight of Levy's concerts – and her new CD, Sentir – is when Yasmin does a Natalie Cole and sings a duet, "Una Pastora," with the recorded voice of her father, who died when she was barely a year old. Yet there was never a sense that Yasmin is merely a curator or custodian of the music she champions. She is quite willing to venture occasionally beyond the traditional Ladino catalogue, covering Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a warm sing-along version and introducing a couple of originals, "El Amor Contigo (Loving You Is Difficult)" and "Una Noche Mas," the Ladino equivalent of "For the Good Times."
Since 2002, when she won a scholarship to study flamenco in Seville, Levy has injected that style into her approach to Ladino repertoire. So the flamenco sound wasn't the new element in Levy's concert at McGlohon – it was rather her sumptuous flamenco costume and her imperious flamenco manner that would surprise anyone familiar with her live performances via YouTube. She entered in a majestic full-length robe with long, wide sleeves, and black fleur-de-lis patterns embossed on a silvery lamé. As opposed to her comparatively spontaneous videos, her manner was tightly controlled, minimum facial expressions and hand gestures exquisitely timed for maximum effect, often frozen at the end of a song. If that wasn't flamenco enough, she'd occasionally swish the skirts of her long robe to the rhythm – or arrogantly turn her back and sing to us in profile.
On the other hand, Levy's singing on "La Alegria" and the Gypsy-flavored "Naci en Alamo" was mellower, less electrifyingly anguished than the video concert clips. The new mellowness and the baroque flamenco threads may be temporary alterations of the customary Levy sensuality and style, for there was a baby bump protruding between those silver skirts that the singer readily acknowledged. It's fair to guess that the end of Yasmin's arduous Sentir Tour, scheduled for April 6 at London's Barbican Hall, closely coincides with her due date. Her husband, a fellow Israeli, is the group's percussionist, but the other musicians in the backup quartet enhance the unit's diversity. Flamenco guitarist James Cuthbertson, the newest member, hails from Glasgow, Scotland, and the electric upright bassist Miles Danso is a Londoner. It's reed player Vardan Hovanissian who bridges East and West most frequently among the instrumentalists. From his native Armenia, Hovanissian brings the double-reed duduk to the stage along with its Turkish cousin, the zurna, but for a smoother sound, he picks up a clarinet.
Even when the clarinet was in the mix, Levy's Ladino music sounded far more Arabian than Jewish when it drifted from its flamenco core. The most Jewish aspect of Levy's concert was the self-denigrating humor that crept into her personable patter. "Have I made you sad enough already?" she asked before singing one of the two happy songs on her playlist, "Una Ora." A few people in the audience cried out, "No!" wanting to hear more mesmerizing keening. But considering the intoxicating style and vocal virtuosity she lavished on every song, there was no wrong answer to Levy's question – as long as she proceeded to sing again.