East meets West as Klezmatics, Yasmin Levy play together

The Klezmatics will perform with Ladino singer Yasmin Levy Nov. 7 at Strathmore. Photo by Adrian Buckmeister

East and West, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Yiddish and Ladino, will meet in musical collaboration when Israeli Ladino singer Yasmin Levy and the New York-based Klezmatics share the stage at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore on Nov. 7, an installment of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

Levy is renowned as a soulful singer of flamenco, tango and Hebrew music, acclaimed for following in her father’s footsteps to preserve the ancient Jewish song traditions of Sephardic Jews who spoke and sang in Ladino — Judeo-Spanish. Their songs, many in a minor key, reflect the Jewish expulsion from 15th-century Spain and centuries of wandering while maintaining the rich Ladino language and culture.

The Klezmatics over the past three decades have been at the forefront of the klezmer revival, reinventing the both the happy and soulful sounds of Eastern European bands of traveling musicians who brought joyful songs to weddings but sang, too, of dispersion and heartache.

Levy grew up in a musical household. Her father, Yitzhak Levy, was musicologist and head of the Ladino department in Israel’s national radio station, and her mother, Kochava, was a singer until she married.

Music was never far from Levy as a child, but this will be her first time exploring klezmer.

One of the Klezmatics’ founders, singer, accordionist and pianist Lorin Sklamberg, recalls buying a Yitzhak Levy album as a teenager growing up in Alhambra, Calif. Musically adventurous since his youth, Sklamberg and the five members of Klezmatics, too, have explored collaborative ventures with a variety of musicians, including jazz, blues, classical, Irish and Israeli. For Sklamberg, sharing songs in Ladino will be a first, though the Klezmatics have been influenced by many other musical traditions.

Yasmin Levy. Photo by Tali Tamir

Both have preserved, popularized and invigorated ancient Jewish musical traditions while building successful careers — the Klezmatics have won multiple Grammys and Levy has received many awards in Europe and around the world for her music.

The two bands — Levy is bringing four musicians — met in person for the first time this week for a rehearsal and show in Toronto. They will build on that collaboration at Strathmore. WJW spoke with both artists in separate interviews — Levy from Tel Aviv and Sklamberg from Sao Paulo — about what they and concert-goers can expect.

How are each of you preparing? Yasmin, are you studying up on Yiddish music? Lorin, how much do you know of Ladino music?

Levy: I know Yiddish music because if you grow up in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, you know Yiddish music and I grew up hearing many different kinds of music, so I’m very familiar with this music.

Sklamberg: Yasmin’s father was the father of Ladino music in Israel and I had one of her father’s LPs when I was a teenager.

What similarities do you hear in these two forms? Both are played in minor key, right?

Levy: It’s a beautiful question. I know [Ladino songs] can be very deep and sad, but somehow it makes you smile. There are sad melodies in klezmer, of course … but then it makes you kind of happy. In both, there is a sadness and happiness that makes it possible to survive all the difficulties we had to go through as Jews.

Sklamberg: I work at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as a sound archivist. That has been a font of information for me in bringing material to the band. But this is something that’s new for us. We have worked with Sephardic songs, but not specifically with Ladino. It’s such a different musical world than ours, although there is a place where it intersects: The klezmer repertoire shares tunes from the Turkish tradition.

What do you want each other to know about your music?

Levy: I work with musicians from all around the world and I can appreciate music and I can go deep. As a musician, when you have to play their music then you go deep and understand the rhythms. But as a singer, you share your world. For example, I’m going to take a Yiddish song and sing it in Ladino. I couldn’t sing it in Yiddish. That would sound ridiculous. I could listen and learn to sing it, but I respect the music more than just imitating the lyrics. Language is a world. If I don’t understand the language I dare not touch it. I respect them by singing their song in my language.

Sklamberg: When we play together, we’ll be doing things that are familiar to both of us like [the Ladino] “Adio Querida” or “Goodbye, Beloved.” I hope Yasmin will see that we continue to be open to other musical traditions. It’s one of the things that makes us who we are, and it makes it possible to interact and to share on a deep level. I’m always open to being inspired and making new musical friends.

Yasmin Levy and The Klezmatics, Nov. 7, 8 p.m., Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. Tickets: $25-$65. Call 301-581-5100 or Strathmore.org.

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