Yasmin Levy Debuts On World Music Chart With 'Sentir'

A simple album review on NPR's "All Things Considered" seems to have lifted Israeli singer/songwriter Yasmin Levy's album "Sentir" to an unlikely world music chart debut.

Unlikely because Levy sings mostly in Ladino, a language spoken by Sephardic Jews that is derived from Spanish and includes Hebrew, Aramaic and other influences.

Since its U.S. release in February on New York indie Four Quarters Entertainment, "Sentir" has generated only negligible sales in this country. But after music critic Banning Eyre's review aired March 11 on "All Things Considered," U.S. sales of the album reached nearly 1,000 units for the week ended March 13, up 14 times over the prior week's sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

That was enough for "Sentir" to debut at No. 7 on Billboard's Top World Albums chart. It's a modest success, but a notable one because it highlights how an artist who falls into a niche within a niche can still find an audience.

While Levy sings primarily in Ladino, she has also composed and recorded in Spanish, incorporating elements of flamenco in her music. For "Sentir," Levy's fourth album, she worked with Spanish producer Javier Limon, best-known for "Lagrimas Negras," the collaboration between Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala."

"People always ask me why I don't sing in Hebrew, and I do, but only when it's liturgical songs," says Levy, whose father was a cantor. "Hebrew is the language that I speak. It's like buying milk. It has no magic for me. I find charm in Ladino and Spanish."

Levy admits she writes in Spanish better than she speaks it. But the Latin influences on "Sentir" go beyond language. Limon, she says, introduced her to elements of Cuban music that she hadn't experimented with before.

Four Quarters president Yusuf Gandhi says he's tried unsuccessfully to get Levy attention in the mainstream Latin press. But by going to an outlet like NPR, in tandem with her U.S. concert tour, Levy is reaching at least a portion of that elusive bilingual, bicultural audience not connected to traditional Spanish-language media outlets.

The NPR review, Gandhi says, "really hit the nail on the head talking about the record being for everybody-Latino or Jewish."

While a diversity of styles can make an artist difficult to market, in Levy's case it has opened doors. Her tour, for example, included stops at universities where she lectured on Ladino traditions.Levy's agent, Thia Knowlton of IMG Artists, says her shows cater to Jewish audiences but also appeal to Hispanics intrigued by the fact that Levy sings and composes in Spanish. "They see the show poster," Knowlton says, "and they're intrigued."

Gandhi knows it's unlikely that "Sentir" will become a blockbuster seller but expects it to surpass sales of Levy's previous album, "Mano Suave," which has sold about 2,000 units since its U.S. release in 2009, according to SoundScan.

"Music is . . . an art form," he says, "and it's important to keep it alive."