A Haunting New Album Brings Ladino Music to Life

A Conversation with Composer Guy Mendilow
February 15, 2018Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Israeli-born musician Guy Mendilow directs a world-class ensemble that combines evocative storytelling with emotionally captivating music. Each performance by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble [explodes] with artistry, refinement, and excitement (Hebrew Union College), conjuring voices lost to war and upheaval, whisking audiences to distant times and picturesque places, and, ultimately, stirring highly resonant, deeply moving connections to contemporary struggles and dilemmas. I caught up with Guy after the ensemble performed at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Boston.

ReformJudaism.org: What is Ladino, the language you sing in – and is it a viable language?

Ladino is just one name for this old Spanish, mingled with languages from wherever the Jews settled: Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Slavic. It’s a fascinating time capsule because it preserves elements that evolved out of modern Spanish. Today Ladino is still spoken by pockets of Jews, primarily in Israel, but is classified by UNESCO as one grade above extinction.

Tell us about your earliest introduction to Ladino songs.

As a boy growing up in Jerusalem, I’d walk through Yemin Moshe, a historic Sephardic neighborhood, where sometimes songs wafted from open windows as women cooked or beat rugs on verandas. Years later, once I’d grown up a bit musically and linguistically, I got hooked on these traditional songs, their tales, and their history.

What hooked you?

The sinuous melodies are fascinating – and so are the stories! Many of these characters could be ripped right out of a cut-throat fantasy novel. For anyone who loves Lord of the Rings, there’s a lot here.

Then there’s this remarkably rich but overlooked history that can instruct us about our present moment. I’ve been especially interested in Sephardic music from the former Ottoman Empire around the turn of the 20th century because there are haunting parallels. For me, this is the principal driver: looking to this long-ago-and-far-away realm to question our here-and-now.

You and most of the members of your ensemble are not of Sephardic descent, yet you are drawn to its lore and songs. Why?

First, the Ladino story mirrors experiences that I, along with most of the artists in the ensemble, know as immigrants to the U.S. It’s a story of shifting identities as you settle in new homes, and the ways those homes adapt to you.

The music with which I work points to a larger historical narrative that feels especially vital for us today, offering examples of resilience and interethnic cooperation. Through the songs, we glimpse life at the end of an era. These tales are set against the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, as a centuries-old order broke down under the weight of WWI.

In what ways are we also already straddling two worlds, already on the cusp? In what ways are we too looking at the breakdown of democratic structures? By inviting us to wonder, such stories help us steel ourselves against the darkness and small-mindedness that is growing so rapidly in our own country. They offer ways of meeting the future with resilience, integrity, and tenderness.

One of songs on the album, “Una Noche Al Bodre De La Mar (One Night at the Edge of the Sea),” addresses this theme of being on the cusp of a profound change. What’s the song’s backstory?

This is originally a Bulgarian song of unrequited love. I recast it as the tale of an Ottoman Jewish war hero from WWI, betrayed by a nation whose turn to fascism threatens all for which he sacrificed. It’s based on a relative.

Famed Ukrainian sand artist Kseniya Simonova animated the song.

Are the Ladino songs on the album culturally authentic?

These are women’s songs that would’ve been sung a cappella in the home or community celebrations. My aim was not cultural authenticity. That said, my creative process begins with scholarly research: listening to ethno-musicological field recordings, investigating the songs’ traditional function and context. My next steps – reimagining the mood of the story and the emotions of the characters – lead me away from tradition, as does considering the musical tools available to me and the expertise of the ensemble in bringing stories to life in as emotionally evocative a way as we can muster.

Tell us about the show The Forgotten Kingdom.

The Forgotten Kingdom invites you to embark on a musical trek through former Ottoman lands. It’s a long-form story in which intertwining music and storytelling render a nearly lost world. The music all comes from the Sephardic Ottoman Empire, from the late 19th/early 20th-centuries. Ultimately, it’s an allegory that invites some questions about ourselves today, and the ways some stories continue to play out.

What message do you want the audience to take away?

The show ends with a hopeful question: After all that’s happened, how do you reconnect the threads? The story continues.

Stream the new album The Forgotten Kingdom (Music from the Show) and watch videos from The Forgotten Kingdom. Learn more about Guy Mendilow Ensemble at guymendilowensemble.com.

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