To watch Ladino singer Yasmin Levy perform is to flash back to 1840s Spain, when flamenco began its movement from juergas—intimate gatherings at houses where music, drink and laughs were shared—into cafés cantantes, where singers were afforded their first opportunity to perform in front of audiences. A highly refined, at times stiff and ultimately demanding music form, Levy and her four musicians kept the intellectual stamina and postural straightness intact while achieving the goal of every flamencista: the gritto desgarrado (heart-rending cry), that is, the painful ecstasy of duende.
Like saudude, like eternity and God, duende is a concept pointing beyond itself; no amount of scholarship or reason will describe it (remember what Borges said about eternity: time can only be measured by it, even if, in actuality, it is immeasurable). Duende is transmitted by the vocalist’s longing, or through the toque (guitar), performed on this night by Yehiel Hasson. His beautiful compositions, including an outstanding boleria against Sasson Levy’s percussive mastery on the cajon, matched Levy’s vocal acrobatics magnificently. As for Levy, whose father Isaac was a Ladino scholar, preserving in research the history of Spanish Jews, her mastery over the subtle inflections of voice were astounding. Octaves were not challenges but graceful patterns of didactic fluctuations, moving from near-silence to passionate howls, segueing with ease between the two.
In 75 minutes Levy and crew explored the waning history of the Ladino catalog. Much of her repertoire consists of classic Andalusian music, though this does not limit her: the final composition was a Greek song adapted by the Spaniards, and, in the most unique aspect of her show, Amir Shasar played the ney (reed pipe) and Turkish clarinet. A native of Iran, Shasar’s eloquent proficiency reminds one of the hypnotic Suleyman Erguner, a Turkish Sufi musician. The ney is the mystical vehicle by which Whirling Dervishes dance; wrapped within the context of Jewish flamenco, it added a subtle, powerful edge.
Levy’s first visit to America was in support of her recent La Jude Ria (Adama). The luminous tinctures of the Joe’s Pub stage made the perfect setting, Levy moving from her chair in acappella rapture to arise and dance joyously (it is sa