Embark on a musical trek to kingdoms long forgotten and bustling towns now vanished. Follow the stories of vagabond queens, pauper poets and lovers lost to the sea, all set to spellbinding arrangements of old Sephardi songs worthy of symphonic film scores. Wrap these tales up with lush soulful harmonies evoking Flamenco’s gutsiness and the longings of Fado, all combined with heart-pounding percussion and intricate soundscapes.
Journey through the Balkans to the Mid-East beginning in Sarajevo and winding through Salónica and Jerusalem. Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom is a sonic adventure masterfully brought to life by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, a quintet of world-class musicians from Israel, Palestine, Argentina and the USA. The intertwining music and storytelling conjure an imagi-nation lost to war and upheaval, recorded in a language that blends archaic Spanish with Arabic, Turkish and Greek. This internationally savvy ensemble delivers a richly textured global experience of haunting beauty.
A queen who runs away with her slave, joining her fate to her beloved servant’s. 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 wild rides and 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 multicultural metropolises like Sarajevo, in picturesque island towns like Rhodes, Jewish culture-bearers recounted the romantic escapades and derring do of a cast of characters worthy of a cutthroat 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. The intertwining music and storytelling conjure an imagi-nation 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, intertwining voices, percussion, and soulful playing to render these songs in all their color, drama, and heart.
“If you like Game of Thrones, these stories are for you,” suggests Mendilow with a smile. “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.”
Audiences savor this intensity as the ensemble brings the show to performing arts centers, universities and cultural centers.
Mendilow grew up in Jerusalem, hearing 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 recalls.
However, once he had mastered Spanish while living in Mexico, and once Mendilow had engaged intensely with Indian classical and other, very different music, he found himself fascinated by Ladino repertoire. The epic stories, tales scholars of Spanish literature prize for encapsulating much medieval material unavailable elsewhere, are coupled with tantalizing, zesty melodies. The combination won Mendilow over.
“As a more mature artist, I was able to listen with more of a musician’s ear, and it was entrancing, those meandering melodies and modes.” The songs’ provenance resonated with Mendilow’s own background. His own family’s generations of migration and relocation echoed the travels and cross-cultural lives of the people who crafted the songs. “The history is fascinating, specific, and yet is a general case study of what happens when people leave one home and settle in another. 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.”
“We know so much about certain areas, but very little about what happened in areas like Greece, or Bulgaria, or Bosnia,” says Mendilow. “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. [“De Saloniki A Auschwitz”, for example] 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 US 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.”
To find a way to make the work live and breathe, Mendilow had to set aside notions of purity or authenticity, in favor of making meaningful work. As he described his ideas to an established Ladino scholar, York University’s Judith Cohen, she laid it on the line: You either keep strictly to tradition and abide by its ways, or you pursue your own ideas, but without calling it traditional. Mendilow opted for the latter.
“That’s one of the most challenging things about the project, the moment that demanded the most soul searching,” he reflects. “The conclusion I came to was that we needed to call a spade a spade. I don’t want someone to think they’ve heard Ladino music when they’ve come to our concert. It’s not about that; it’s about bringing the stories to life.” That new life is a precious gift to communities scattered by war, but whose tales of wonder continue to inspire and thrill, like all good stories.
The story of these tales themselves is perhaps one of the most fascinating of all. Though history never really has a beginning, you could say that a diving-in point here is the end of an era: The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1491 and from Portugal in 1497. This uprooting began migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern African and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, languages, food, customs, stories, songs and musicality mingled and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved.
The language itself is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Variously called Ladino, Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Hekatia, Saphardi or simply Spanish, the language is more like a number of closely related sub-streams, today grouped under the umbrella term Judeo-Spanish. To some extent, each community integrated words and expressions from the local language, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. Wherever it is found, Judeo-Spanish is also a type of linguistic time capsule: The Spanish Jews preserved the lexis, syntax, morphology and phonology of Medieval Spanish as well as idioms, pronunciation and accent of words which have long since vanished from Spain itself. Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel, though it is considered an endangered language.
Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom: Ladino Songs Renewed springboards off of songs mainly from the communities of Sarajevo and Salonica. The traditional source music is primarily from the early twentieth century, though the lyrics of a few of these songs are much older, even pre-dating 1492. While these older songs may well have been sung for hundreds of years, there is little evidence left to indicate the melodies and ornamentations used back then. The melodies that we know today are much more recent.
There are three main types of Ladino song:
- Romanzas: These are many of the epic/historical stories, tales of kings and queens, intrigue, daring escapes and, often, treachery. Romanzas have a fixed structure similar to the French Ballade: Each line has 16 syllables, divided to two 8-syllable parts with an assonant rhyme scheme. Some romanzas have 12 syllables per line, divided into two groups of six. The romanza is a narrative in which the order of verses is important.
- Cantigas: These songs often deal with love, longing and disappointment. Unlike the romanzas there is often not a single, progressive, plot to the song and the form and verse order can vary from one version to another. Cantigas can be songs of courting, mourning, even drinking. They can be tied in with life events like weddings and other communal occasions.
- Coplas: These songs are associated with values and beliefs. Coplas can revolve around important community figures, economic hardship, specific holidays or moral themes. The lyrics to coplas tend to be more modern (17th-19th century).
This show focuses on romanzas and cantigas.
It should be stated from the start that Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom: Ladino Songs Renewed does not aim for ethno-musicological authenticity.
My creative process with Ladino song begins with ethno-musicological field recordings, followed by research into the songs’ traditional function and context. Most of these songs were sung primarily by women, in the home or community events like weddings, unaccompanied except perhaps for a drum. The themes may be dark, but the songs were normally sung in a familiar way, without being taken overly seriously and certainly lacking much of the theatricality in which they are commonly presented today.
My next steps often lead me away from tradition, knowingly and deliberately. I ask compositional questions:
“What can I imagine the mood of the story, or the emotions of some of the characters, to be, despite the traditional ways the song would have been sung? Was I to create a soundtrack for this story, how would I use the musical tools available to me, and the expertise of the Ensemble members, to bring these tales, moods and emotions to life in a way that will feel personally real, and that will give audiences a powerful emotional experience?”
My hope is that the resulting arrangements bring the stories to life in a way that will be vivid and fresh for you and for me. It is risky to recast such old, rich material this way. We leap from tradition into modern imagination.
Obviously whatever flaws you will find in this project are mine — not the tradition or the songs themselves, songs that, after all, have been around for quite some time and will, I trust, endure. —Guy Mendilow
About The Ensemble
"An international tour de force” (Bethlehem Morning Call) from Israel, Palestine, Argentina and the USA, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble operates on the notion that incredible stories and emotionally sweeping experiences can do far more than just entertain. They can spark the fascination that leads to discovery. With this premise in mind, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble combines world-class musicianship with cinematic storytelling in shows that “explode 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, inspiring the motivation to explore lesser known cultures and histories.
In 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts selected the Guy Mendilow Ensemble for its Art Works, a grant for the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art and the strengthening of communities through the arts.
The Guy Mendilow Ensemble is an artist-in-residence with Celebrity Series of Boston's Arts for All since 2014. Alongside touring with the Ensemble, members are on the faculty of music schools like the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in India and tour/record with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Yo Yo Ma, Snarky Puppy, the Assad Brothers, Christian McBride, the Video Game Orchestra, Amanda Palmer and Simon Shaheen. Formed in 2004, the Ensemble is based in Boston, MA and New York, NY, USA.