Resurrecting Hispanic culture

As she embarks on her first tour of the U.S., singer-songwriter Yasmin Levy, 34, has built an estimable reputation as a champion of Ladino music, the ancient music of the Sephardic Jews of Spain.

Singing Ladino, Bedouin and original Ladino-like songs, sometimes imbued with Turkish or Flamenco influences, Levy is on a mission to preserve and promote a language and culture facing extinction.

Since making her international debut at the WOMEX International World Music Expo in 2002, Levy has released three albums. The first, “Romance and Yasmin,” was nominated for a BBC World Music Award; the second, and more experimental disc, “La Juderia,” received additional acclaim.

Now with “Mano Suave,” her first album distributed in the U.S., she embarks on a tour that includes a Thursday gig in Herbst Theatre sponsored by the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Levy’s low-voiced, remarkably flexible throaty instrument seems like a channel to olden times. Singing of love and longing, even performing an original setting of Psalm 118: 21-22, her highly evocative, wailing delivery cuts across cultural boundaries.

One moment you think you’re listening to the daughter of a Hasidic cantor, the next you wonder if she may be Iranian or Turkish.

“Mother, I long for Jerusalem,” sings Levy on the first track of “Mano Suave.” Although the song and lyric are traditional, they’re especially fitting for a Jerusalem-born artist who heard her first Ladino songs in the kitchen, sung by her mother.

“I took them from the kitchen to the stage,” she says about her stage debut at the age of 20.

Before devoting herself to song, Levy worked on cars in a garage and opened her own reflexology clinic. The latter endeavor was short-lived; even as she was seeing her very first patient, she discovered her mind far more on song than on pressure points.

These days, she uses song to heal centuries-old divisions, and serves as a goodwill ambassador for Children of Peace, a U.K.-based charity fighting to alleviate the plight of all children caught in the multinational Middle East crisis.

Levy’s haunting voice, filled with the heart and passion of a people who have survived centuries of persecution and misunderstanding, is certain to attract a huge following. Take advantage of the opportunity to hear her now, before she becomes idolized in the manner of Cesaria Evora and other great artists whose voices seem to sing directly from their soul.

IF YOU GO

Yasmin Levy

Presented by San Francisco Jazz Festival

Where: Herbst Theatre,

401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $25 to $65

Contact: (866) 920-5299; www.sfjazz.org

Note: Levy will give a lecture-demonstration at 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission St. For ticket information, call (415) 575-6175 or visit

www.ciis.edu/publicprograms.

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