A Backstage Tour of The Forgotten Kingdom (part 3): Overtone Singing, Berimbau and Ladino?!

Did you know that Sephardic singers were among the best overtone singers in the Ottoman Empire, and that they were early adopters of the musical bow?

No?
That’s good. Because that statement is 100% false and only a bit more preposterous than some of the other myths surrounding this music, like the notion that songs from the early twentieth/late nineteenth century are ancient and full of medieval mystique.

And yet perhaps such instruments may have a role to play in telling a story from an older age in a way that will leap to life today? 
I’ve written previously about some of the tensions in modern, creative interpretations of traditional material. After the research, so much of The Forgotten Kingdom involves resetting stories from an older world using colours, textures and tambers that will bring the stories to living colour for a modern Western audience.   

Mancevo Del Dor is a tale of a guy who thinks he’s as refined and subtle as can be. A hipster of sorts, he believes himself to be a real Casanova. Alas poor hipster, he is not quite as smooth as he thinks, and is treated to a one-way-trip down a well, courtesy of a daughter of the village he attempts to seduce.

I love the humour in this story, which, I'm told, is originally from Alexandria, Egypt. I especially love the way this young woman so cooly and calmly dismisses her would-be suitor. Not only is this song indicative of a type of wry humour that is found in many Sephardic songs, it also delivers a timeless message: don’t let your head get too big for your shoulders.

Sofia Tosello and Guy Mendilow (Photo by Gretjen Helene)

This is a lighter, peppier song than much of the material in the show. I wanted to set it in a way that will bring out some of that spunk, and attitude, and quirkiness. The job of a composer/arranger is also to choose the best tools for the job. Of the instruments available to me, the berimbau, a musical bow, (one of the oldest and most common string prototypes on the planet) offered the most attitude. And overtone singing (a technique that allows one person to produce multiple voices at the same time) felt like it would give the right kind of musical whimsy.  And so, voila!

Listen to this great 1958 recording of Gloria Levy singing the song on Smithsonian Folkways

Now listen to our version from The Forgotten Kingdom

Berimbau photo by Dave Barnes

For more information about the berimbau/musical bow, check out  check out this excellent article by N. Scott Robinson and Richard Graham. You can find many good videos of the berimbau in its Capoeira Angola contexts. Here's just one playlist to get you started. Finally, check out some additional musical bows from around the world!

For a comprehensive resource about overtone singing styles worldwide, check out Mark Van Tangoren’s book Overtone Singing. To get your mind completely blown, check out our agency-mates, Alash Ensemble from Tuva, who practice throat singing, a different, sophisticated yet related style of overtone singing. 

I hope you’ll enjoy.
— Guy