About this track, including a field recording of this song from Silivria, Turkey.
How do you tell a story that comes from a very different age, a different time in our world, in a way that will capture the imagination today?
Our world is so different from the world of the former Ottoman Empire, where many of the songs on our new album, The Forgotten Kingdom, arose. Traditional contexts for singing these songs — in the home, in community events — have all but vanished thanks to wars, immigration, and massive societal changes. So how do you bring songs from long ago and far away to a modern, savvy audience?
My colleague, Andy Reiner, said it well: There are cultural curators, whose job is to present a song in a way that captures a specific moment rooted in a particular time and place, and there are artistic creators, who create something new, based on their own experience. I think it’s fair to say we can take these as polar extremes, and that artists dealing with traditional material situate somewhere on the spectrum between them. It’s important for such artists to be up front with themselves and their audiences about their place on that spectrum. As Petrarch said, you “call a fig a fig.”
For any artist working with traditional material, knowing the tradition, knowing the history, is a basic prerequisite. If you haven’t grown up with those traditions, it’s incumbent on you to read, to watch, to listen. And there aren’t good excuses. If you cannot actually work directly with living culture bearers, you work with the next best thing: video and audio documenting those culture bearers.
And this is where I’d like to start.
The first track from The Forgotten Kingdom we’ll feature is Esta Montaña D’Enfrente (The Mountain Ahead Burns).
Here is a field recording, made in 1978, of Levi Ester, singing this song as she might have heard it in her home in Silivria, Turkey in the early 20th century.
Have a listen:
This is a good example of a fairly modern (i.e. late 19th century/early 20th century) Sephardi cantiga — a topical song dealing with popular issues like love (or in this case lost love). These songs were most often sung by women, and, as you can hear in this field recording, they were most often sung a capella. That’s not necessarily because the women who sang these songs wouldn’t have wanted an accompaniment. It’s just that they often sang them in situations where accompaniment was not practical: like in the home, while doing a bazillion different household things. You’ll notice also that the singer here is not necessarily a professional. And, for the most part, these songs weren’t sung by pros. They belonged to the community, in an intimate sort of way. This meant also that individual singers felt free to make changes to the lyrics, or to the melodies, according to their own aesthetics.
Take a look at the lyrics of this song:
Esta muntanya d'enfrente
S'asiende i va kemando.
Ayí pedrí al mi amor,
M'asento i vo yorando.
Sekretos kero deskuvrir,
Sekretos de mi vida.
El sielo kero por papel,
La mar kero por tinta.
Los arvolés por pendolás,
Para eskrivir mis males,
No ay ken sepa mi dolor,
Ni ajenos ni parientes.
The mountain ahead
ignites and burns.
That’s where I lost my love
That’s where I sit and weep
There are secrets I would discover.
Secrets of my life.
I would have the sky for paper,
And the sea for ink.
The trees as my pen,
I write my suffering
I’ve suffered more than anyone can know.
Not my neighbors or my family.
And now we leave tradition. Now I put away the research. And I just gotta say: Whoa. This is no ordinary ditty. Can you imagine coming to a place in your life when these sentiments become your conviction? What brings you to such a place? What loss, what grief?
Once, in Seville, I had the good fortune of being brought to an unmarked speakeasy in the Triana neighborhood. It operated from midnight to three am. Only locals knew about it. Smoky, cluttered with old, gritty wood tables and chairs, stained floors. There were two or three guitarists. There’d be conversation and then someone would start singing, and first one and then the other guitarists would join in. The singer started seated, but, almost inevitably, the raw intensity of her singing would bring her to her feet. The atmosphere was charged, electric. The way they sang, the rhythmic clapping, the low lights — staying up all night, alone in the streets, awake, alive! This was far from the flamenco most tourists caught in the local theatre. I never found out whether these were pros or not, and I'm not sure it matters, but I can tell you that the kind of edge-of-your-seat urgency of those voices in that room struck a powerful impression.
Years later, I wanted to set this song, Esta Montaña D'Enfrente, there, with that kind of reckless careening, that kind of fire. Is it traditional Ladino? Absolutely not. But, I hope, it makes this story resonant.
You be the judge. Here is the result:
I hope you’ll enjoy.
Myths, Distortions, And Questions
That Burn Today
Toledo is a magical place at just about any time. But after the tourist busses leave for the day, and the throngs depart, you can really let your imagination take flight. If you’re lucky, you’ll have entire streets virtually to yourself. And it is a delight to get yourself thoroughly lost in the narrow lanes and twisting alleys, as the sunset turns the stone walls golden-red. It’s easy to be transported to far-off times.
I had been blissfully lost for a good while by the time I began making it back to my Airbnb near the central cathedral. Walking up stone steps in yet another perfect alley, I came across the awning of a bookseller. And there, in front, was a young woman in garb from another age, playing a hurdy-gurdy and, with a pure soprano, singing what a small sign in Spanish and English announced were centuries old Sephardic songs from before the expulsion.
She sang beautifully.
And in that moment, the hypnotic drone of the instrument together with her clear voice had a mesmerizing effect. It evoked everything that Sephardic song should: It was haunting. It was yearning. It was ancient, handed down across the ages. For this setting it felt just right.
It’s a pity that it was almost entirely wrong.
The “medieval” songs she sang were, at oldest, from the late nineteenth century, though most were from the early twentieth century. None were from Toledo, and some were not even originally Sephardic; they were popular songs of the day from places like Turkey that were “Ladino-ized” by the singers who sang them. And beautiful (and fitting!) as the hurdy-gurdy is accompanying the melodies, these songs were typically sung unaccompanied.
This singer wove a spell, especially in that setting. That it belonged more to Harry Potter’s world and less to reality did not make it any less captivating. Yet despite being a good musician, she bought into many of the myths surrounding Ladino song.
Just how and why we arrive at such a romanticized place is topic for a different place. Suffice it to say that Ladino traditions are not unique in being distorted to the point where culture-bearers themselves can hardly measure up to outsiders’ expectations of what they should be. In the USA one of the most cutting examples of the ways this plays out is in white culture’s perception of Native Americans. Listen to writers like Thomas King or Sherman Alexie for poignant perspectives on this.
For most of its existence, Ladino song was a true, aural, folk tradition. This means that individual singers often changed melodies to suite their aesthetics and altered lyrics to bring stories more in-line with their values and perspectives. As singers were influenced by popular trends, the melodies they sang likewise changed in ways both subtle and not. Moreoever, these melodies where not written until the early twentieth century. We have little way of knowing the tunes, ornamentation, and inflections used before these songs were documented.
And yet, it is also true that there are lyrics to certain Ladino songs, especially the ballads, that indeed are centuries-old. We know because these were written, though we don’t know how they were sung.
And it is here that I’d like to dive into the next track from The Forgotten Kingdom because it belongs to this category. While the music may be new, this legend truly is ancient.
Hermanas Reina Y Cautiva (the song goes by other names too) was a popular tale in Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities of the day. After the expulsion, this ballad seems to have been lost in the Muslim and Christian communities, preserved in the diaspora by the Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire. This is the legend of Queen Xerifa, of the kingdom of Almeria. There are variations on the tale but the general gist is, basically, that a count is murdered and his wife brought to the queen as a slave. The queen overhears this captive servant singing a song from her distant home and this triggers a long-buried memory: it turns out the queen herself was brought from these foreign lands. The two forge a friendship.
In some versions the queen turns out to be the sister of the captive (she recognizes a distinct birthmark). In other versions the two are pregnant, and they swap children. And in others the queen and captive flee the kingdom together, returning to their faroff country.
This is one of the first arrangements of Ladino song that I made. Back then, I didn’t have easy access to field recordings and, in this case, I heard other artists’ interpretations of the song before I heard field recordings of culture-bearers. In particular, Jordi Savall's recordings left an impression. Stepping away from traditional contexts and performance practice, I became fascinated with a question I felt this song could be taken to ask, one is vital for our times: What would bring someone of the highest social class - a queen, a member of the one percent - to walk away from an entire kingdom, determining that justice lies in becoming an equal with the person that once was her slave?
Add to this my love of epic tales and an inclination to want to set this story in something that felt like Middle Earth, and you get this arrangement, co-written with longtime ensemble member Andy Bergman. Ours is an excerpt of the much longer romanza. We open with a scene in the great hall of the court of Xerifa of Almeria, to which soldiers return bearing the the kidnapped noblewoman-turned-slave before their queen.
I hope you’ll enjoy.
Featured Track: Mancevo Del Dor (A Modern Man)
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?
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
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
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.
The Meeting At The Well
Featured Track: Yo Me Levantaría Un Lunes (The Meeting by the Well)
If you’ve been following these posts, you know that there are many myths about Sephardic song. One is that Sephardic song is (at least disproportionately) “mystical,” or “haunting,” or even “epic.”
While there indeed are epic ballads, beautiful images and adventurous tales of kings, queens, murders, kidnap and treachery apt for cut-throat fantasy novels, there are many more sides to Sephardic music too.
Some of the songs I like best give you a sense of the humour and spunk and living colour of the people who sing them. There’s a lot of fun, and some grit there, and some of it can be downright bawdy too.
Admittedly, The Forgotten Kingdom often gets into heavier themes — in particular, this question of what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a transition from an older world to a new one, in this case ushered in by WWI, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and brought to full fruition by the fascism and the betrayals of WWII. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not also include some of these lighter, humourous and sometimes grittily amorous songs of day-to-day in the show, as a way of presenting some of the many sides of this older world and of these communities.
So here’s one such song, a mildly seductive one in which a young woman, on her way to fill her water jug, is met by a would-be lover who is eager to make the best of the chance to be alone with her. Instead of going along with him, she taunts him, using her charm to take charge of the situation.
“Wait, Wait, my young man,” she teases.
“I’ll go home and wash my beautiful body first,
adorn myself with a white gown.
Around my waist I’ll tie a belt with a purple sash.
And then you may turn up.
Say not another word of love until nighttime!
Not another word of love until morning!
Tetuán, Morocco, 1945
And if you bring me jewels,
you may perhaps ascend to my bed.
And if you don’t bring me jewels,
Be gone with you,
You may sleep in the hen house!”
This arrangement was made for the Ensemble by Duncan Wickel.
I hope you’ll enjoy
Radio Free America
We're on the road this week, between the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana IL and the Victoria Theatre in Petrolia, Ontario, Canada, and recently had a great conversation with Jason Finkelman and Rich Esbenshade on Radio Free America.
We delve into such questions as:
What are the rights and responsibilities of modern artists wanting to draw on traditional material? What makes a performance "authentic?" What decisions were made in introducing new sounds to old material? We also play some field recordings of songs as they might have been heard in the former Ottoman Empire back-to-back with GME's renditions.
I hope you'll enjoy.
When Stories Collide
This week we feature an interview with Guy Mendilow and Rustin Burr on Public Pulse in Sheridan, WY both about The Forgotten Kingdom and, perhaps more importantly, about the stories of a courageous group of girls at the WY Girls School, a holistic, compassionate and restorative school for girls who've been in trouble with the law.
Rustin and Guy cover such topics as:
Why bother studying overlooked cultures and histories?
What is the power of stories vs music?
What gets us to relate to a story?
How do the stories of those we ordinarily dismiss — in this case, teenage "delinquents" — intersect with our stories (and why it may just be vital for us to listen)?
...and also conversation about films like Arrival and Ratatouille.
The residency was made possible by the Historic Wyo Theater, which is playing a vital role in transforming the artistic landscape of Sheridan, WY.
Blinded By Hindsight: Exploring The Past’s Forgotten Kingdom And Ladino Songs To See More Deeply What We Face Today
I first heard Sephardic songs in my boyhood Jerusalem home. Yet it wasn’t until later, when I started listening through other artists’ interpretations to the traditional songs and tales, that I got hooked by their riveting history of integration, migration and adaptation.
These songs tell great stories. Not because they are Jewish or Mediterranean or Balkan, but because they present near-universal themes that continue to captivate today. The story of the stories—a case study in shifting identities due to migration, the evolution and change of tradition, of resilience and struggle—is alive and relevant today, too.
The story of Ladino mirrors experiences that I, and most of the artists in the Ensemble, live personally, as an immigrant to the US. Not only have we changed because we’re in new homes, but our homes have also changed because we’re in them. This is also the story of the United States and it comes at a time when we very much need to remember stories like this, to fight the darkness and small mindedness that grows so rapidly in this country.
What has haunted me as I’ve created The Forgotten Kingdom is how these stories give us a glimpse into the end of an era, and what it's like to be caught up in the shift from one age to a very different new one. Each story/song in The Forgotten Kingdom can be pegged either to the "old world" (what we'd call a world of romantic naivety, be that right or wrong) or to the "new world" (OUR world today).
Many of these tales are set against the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, as a centuries-old order broke down under the weight of the traumatic Great War. The old world remained, but teetered on the brink of a new era. What was it like for those on the cusp? Imagine for a moment the soldiers in the song "La Vuelta Del Marido." In this song we have this very romantic notion of horses wearing breastplates of silver, of gallant officers wearing white gloves, leading the charge.
The realities of new, mechanized warfare were a terrible shock
This was the picture for hundreds of years. And it was even the story of some armies in 1914. Imagine: This is actually how some of the first officers rode into the first battles of World War I. Picture this gallant soldier, riding heroically with his white gloves...straight into the meat grinder of mechanized warfare in the Battle of the Frontiers. How brutal, this clash of old and new worlds.
To us, looking back with our historical hindsight, it seems almost inevitable, especially because this was the birth of our world. But to those living through this transition of ages, the course must've been anything but a foregone conclusion, a too-terrible future that few would've dared dream. I wanted to explore what it was like to see the breakdown of empires, the glimmers of hope that then evaporate. What is it like to be caught on the wrong side, in that kind of nightmare?
In what ways are we also already straddling two worlds without even knowing it? If we, or my son's generation, are destined to know two very different eras, the wake up call won't come in the form of a storm of steel like in WWI. It'll come in a modern guise. What'll it look like this time? Is it possible that fifty, sixty years from now people will see that we also were being hurtled into a very different times (climate change? The realignment caused by Trumpism/Brexit? The tensions revolving around migration and refugees?...)
The circumstances and details have shifted. Yet so much of the story still plays out. Those elements that move us in these old adventures — courage, working together across ethnic lines, strength in the face of despair — speak to ways we too might grapple with our own daunting, unfolding tale. The past lets us feel the potential risks, terrors, and wonders the future might bring, and steel ourselves to meet this future with integrity and tenderness.