Thursday, 25 February 2010

Yasmin Levy

I went to see Yasmin Levy last night at the lovely Cadogan Hall. Levy is an Israeli-born singer based in Spain who sings in Spanish and Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews of Spain - now severely endangered with only 150,000 speakers. Her music combines the raw emotion of Ladino traditional song with the passion of flamenco, incorporating Middle Eastern, Turkish and - on her new album Sentir ("To Feel") - jazz influences. Blessed with sultry good looks, great stage presence and possessed of a simply astonishing voice - deep, smoky and powerful - Levy is now a genuine star of world music.

Photo by Ali Taskiran
© 2009 World Village

She took to the stage looking stunning in a fantastically gothic black and red flamenco outfit, surrounded by her five-man band in uniform red shirts and black trousers, and proceeded to wow the sold-out crowd with an hour and a half of absolutely fantastic songs. This is music that comes straight from the heart, that speaks of yearning and longing even if you don't understand a word of the lyrics. Some aspects of her performance seemed self-consciously mannered: the slow-motion flamenco moves; the rambling between-song monologues; the mawkish duet with a recording of her dead father; the dismal attempt to lead the predominantly white, late-middle-aged audience in a singalong during her Spanish cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (disparagingly described by one critic as "superfluous"); the truly weird, shuddering vocal style in the copla (popular traditional) song La Hija De Juan Simón ("The Daughter Of Juan Simón") - introduced by Levy as "the saddest song ever", it's about a gravedigger who has to bury his own daughter - which is obviously meant to evoke heaving sobs but came off simply as melodramatic (the version on the album is more listenable). But hey, maybe it's a Spanish thing, and in any case these are purely cosmetic complaints, none of which can detract from the quality of the music.

Sadly, she didn't perform Porque ("Why"), for me one of the undisputed highlights of Sentir (it's recorded on the album as a duet with gravel-voiced Greek diva Eleni Vitali, but I feel sure she could have carried it on her own), but I wasn't too disappointed, as she performed her signature song Nací En Alamó ("Born In Alamó"), also sometimes known as "The Gypsy's Song" and originally written and recorded for the French film Vengo. It is one of my all-time favourite songs and simply has to be heard to be believed.

When, during a couple of uptempo numbers towards the end of the night, she finally cut loose into some proper flamenco dancing, her sexy moves set pulses racing among the late-middle-aged males in the audience. I must confess that although she's a good-looking woman I didn't actually find her that attractive, perhaps because the more I looked at her, the more she reminded me of my company's "bubbly" former head of sales. Although at the end of the gig I heard one couple saying that they couldn't take their eyes off her, for more than half the set my attention was fixed on her band, who were uniformly excellent and a truly international bunch - Scottish and Indian guitarists, one of whom also played mandolin; an English double bassist; an Armenian reeds player who received some of the biggest applause of the night for his frenetic soloing on the duduk; and on percussion, Levy's Israeli manager - and husband - Ishay Amir, who sat on and played what can only be described as a large wooden box.

Levy left the stage to a standing ovation but she loses points for charging £15 for CDs at the merch stall - presumably at a posh venue like Cadogan Hall they figured they could get away with it, selling to people who have no idea how much CDs are worth. It's a measure of how impressed I was with the evening that I'm going to buy one - but I'm going to do it on Amazon.