Game of Tones: Guy Mendilow Ensemble Revives the Fantastic World of Ladino Song

Published July 23, 2015, issue of July 23, 2015.
Guy Mendilow
Craig Harris
Guy Mendilow

A queen who runs away with her slave. Brides who abandon their weddings and join a shipful of sailors. Men who go courting, only to get taunted or tossed down a well.

These fantastic yarns spring from Ladino tradition, from songs and stories carried by Sephardic Jews as they moved from Spain and settled along the Mediterranean’s northern coast to Greece and Turkey. In Sarajevo and Rhodes, Jewish culture-bearers recounted the romantic escapades and derring do of a cast of characters worthy of a fantasy novel.

Multi-instrumentalist, singer and skilled arranger Guy Mendilow and his four musical collaborators leap into this world in “Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom” at The Shalin Liu Performance Center on Thursday, August 27. The intertwining music and storytelling conjure an imagination lost to war and upheaval, recorded in a language that blends archaic Spanish with Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek. By digging deep into Sephardic scholarship and revitalizing the sound recorded on gritty field recordings, Mendilow and company bring tales to life.

“If you like ‘Game of Thrones,’ these stories are for you,” suggests Mendilow. “The tales are amazing. The melodies twist and turn, like the culture of adaptation Sephardic musicians embraced. Much of it is modal music, with elements that run from epic tunes to early 20th-century foxtrots and tangos, and all of it is mesmerizing, in its beauty and intensity.” 
 Mendilow grew up in Jerusalem, listening to various renditions of Ladino songs spinning from the family record player, or drifting mysteriously from open windows, as elder women went about their housekeeping. It felt too slick or too rough, and left only a faint impression on the young musician. “The songs were cryptic, the language was mysterious, opaque,” he recalled.

However, after he had mastered Spanish while living in Mexico and had engaged intensely with Indian classical and other, very different music, he found himself fascinated by Ladino repertoire. The epic stories coupled with tantalizing, zesty melodies won Mendilow over.

The songs’ provenance also resonated with Mendilow’s own background. “It’s a similar trajectory to what my family went through, to the adjustments and shifts we each made as individuals in a new cultural context. We each speak with a different accent.”

Mendilow delved into the region that interested him most: Sarajevo, once home to a thriving Jewish population, and the Greek mainland and islands, where Sephardic Jews lived and made striking music. Unlike the more segregated communities to the north and west, Sephardim lived and worked in the midst of non-Jewish neighbors until this delicate fabric was ripped to shreds by World War II.

“Some of the music we are premiering on this tour was written during the war — one of the pieces was written in Auschwitz about a harrowing cattle-car ride from Salonika — or about the wartime experience. [“O Mis Hermanos,” for example],” said Mendilow. “It’s powerful to meet with elders who have lived through these experiences, who may have heard these songs decades and decades ago from a parent or grandparent, before the Sephardic world in the Eastern Mediterranean was obliterated.”

Despite the grim fate of many communities during the war, Mendilow discovered rough field recordings, such as the collection held at the National Archives of Israel, some of which archivists have since uploaded to the internet. Immersed in the material, he began to explore sounds that might capture the tales and convey them to contemporary, non-Ladino-speaking audiences. He turned to an instrumentarium from around the world, adding Brazilian berimbau and overtone singing, for example, to a mocking treatment of a courtship gone wrong, “Mancevo del dor,” and thumb piano to “Una Noche al Borde de la Mar,” a piece originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.

The overall sound, however, is based on more familiar though equally expressive elements. Singer Sofia Tosello, from Argentina and with a background in tango vocals, weaves her sometimes crystalline, sometimes gritty voice with Mendilow’s pure tenor, creating catchy harmonies and dramatic dialogs. Violinist Chris Baum (who’s worked with everyone from Amanda Palmer to major U.S. orchestras), Palestinian drummer and percussionist Tareq Rantisi, and woodwind player Andy Bergman can be sprightly or lyrical, using a rich palette and creating dense backdrop for the pieces.

“If you went to Salonika in the early 20th century, say, you would never have heard these arrangements,” says Mendilow. “You’d hear women singers a capella, mostly in the home while going about chores, or in community celebrations. There’s lots of research and scholarship behind what we’ve done, but it’s a stylized project to make the stories come alive today.”

The Shalin Liu Performance Center is located at 37 Main Street in Rockport. Tickets are $19-$34. Visit guymendilow.com, rockportmusic.org/guy-mendilow/, 
or call the Rockport Music Box Office at 978-546-7391.



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