Wednesday 3 October 2012

Picture post number eight - Yitzhak Levy in Jerusalem and the Ladino music legacy

Israel by Yekkes
I took this photograph in a quiet street close to Shuk Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. It is one in a series of pictures posted around the area, showing images of Jews who lived in this part of Jerusalem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The dashing man in the picture is Yitzhak Levy, iconic musician and singer, collector (and preserver) of Judeo-Spanish songs, often referred to as Ladino and father of the phenomenally successful Yasmin Levy.

Yitzhak was born near Izmir in Turkey in 1919 and moved with his family, to Eretz Israel in 1922. After the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, he became head of the Ladino department at the national radio station and devoted his life to collecting and preserving Ladino songs and music.

Judeo-Spanish was the language spoken by the former Jewish community of Spain, expelled from the country in 1492 by edict of joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (who was known as "The Catholic"). The majority of Spanish Jews complied with the expulsion order preferring departure to forced conversion to Catholicism or living as secret Jews - most of whom would eventually come to the attention of the Inquisition, resulting almost inevitably in their execution. The Jews of Spain dispersed to many places including Italy and the Netherlands, but the majority went to North Africa, joining long established communities, chiefly in what is modern day Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, as well as in countries under the domination of the Ottoman Turks. They took their language and traditions with them, establishing great centres of Jewish learning in Thessaloniki in Greece, in Sarajevo in Bosnia and in many towns and cities in Turkey itself.

Taking their language with them, the songs of the Sephardic Jews as they continue to be known, were passed orally from generation to generation for almost 500 years until Levy began to capture them in writing and in recordings for future generations to enjoy. The word "Sephardi" comes from the Hebrew word for Spain - Sepharad.  There is no reliable figure for the number of people still speaking Judeo-Spanish, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000 worldwide with some working knowledge of the language.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in Ladino music, led by the massive popularity of Jerusalem born Yasmin Levy - Yitzhak's daughter. Yasmin has recorded a number of albums all of which include a majority of songs in Ladino. She also tours regularly and has a large international following. Her voice is rich and silky, extremely powerful and able to evoke the lost world of the Spanish Jews. Closing your eyes and listening to her recordings, or better still, her live performances, it is easy to imagine you are back in Cordoba, Toledo or maybe Gerona in the centuries before Ferdinand and Isabella came to the throne. She is extremely well respected and has performed at the Royal Opera House and the Cadogan Hall, both in London as well as at some of the city's premier jazz venues including the world famous Ronnie Scott's and PizzaExpress

Yasmin is by far the best known performer of this genre of music today, but there are other excellent exponents too. These include Mor Karbasi, another Israeli, now based in the UK and who performed at the prestigious South Bank Centre, at Richmix, a major arts centre in East London and also in Trafalger Square as part of a Jewish cultural festival.

Jazz genius Avishai Cohen, another Jerusalemite and master of the bass, piano and guitar has also recorded a couple of Ladino songs on recent albums, including the almost standard "Noches Noches" which in a live performance at the Union Chapel in 2010, he remembered his mother singing to him as a lullaby during his childhood.

Whilst the main focus for the revival of this music has been in Israel, there are also a number of performers in the United States who are working hard to preserve this unique culture. These include Flory Jagoda. Born in Sarajevo in 1925 and later moving to Zagreb with her family, she survived the second world war but recounts how she was subject to many anti-semitic restrictions including not being allowed to go to school and having to wear the yellow star. Her family escape to an Italian occupied part of the country and then to mainland Italy. At the end of the war she married an American and moved to the United States. Her home town Sarajevo was once a major centre of Sephardic civilisation, including a great musical tradition. The Sarajevo community was almost entirely wiped out during the second world war, but Jagoda has recorded many of the old songs on her album "Memories of Sarajevo". My two favourites are the Chanukah song "Oco Kandelikas" (eight candles) and "Jo Hanino, Tu Hanina" (I am handsome, you are beautiful). As with Yasmin, Flory can transport you back to old time Sarajevo, with its cobbled streets, minarets and the sound of Ladino in the streets.

European Sephardi culture was practically wiped out by the invading and occupying Germans and their allies during the second world war. As well as Sarajevo's historic community, 98% of Thessaloniki's 54,000 Jews were murdered or died during the war, as were 90% of the 7,000 Jews of Macedonia. The one exception were the Jews of Bulgaria, whose government, despite being allies of the Germans would not deport its Jewish community. However, this did not stop them from deporting the Jews of territories transferred to them by their German allies - a fact often overlooked due to the survival of the community from Bulgaria "proper". Almost all Bulgarian Jews left for Israel in 1948.

There are some excellent books that tell the story of Sarajevo's Jewry in particular. I am currently reading "The Scent of Rain in the Balkans" by Gordana Kuic which tells the long story of the Salom family, whilst Isak Samokovlija's "Tales of Old Sarajevo" takes a wider view. Both are well worth reading. But back to the music. Yasmin Levy is appearing in concert at the Barbica, London on November 7th (I already have my ticket!), whilst Avishai Cohen has dates at Ronnie Scott's, also in November. Both are hot tickets. Enjoy the music!

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