The Guy Mendilow Ensemble’s latest musical program, “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,” is full of contradictions—and that’s exactly how they like it. In a performance at Kirkland House on October 25, the ensemble tackled the ancient world of Ladino music (songs rooted in Sephardi Jewish culture), challenging centuries-old traditions, including melody, arrangement, and attitude towards the art form by reinterpreting its sound in a way that preserves its integrity.
Ladino, a Romance language originally spoken by Sephardi Jews (who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century), houses a rich and varied musical history. This is due mostly to the language’s presence in many distinct locales. Sephardi Jews settled in locations as widespread as Damascus, Sarajevo, Alexandria, and Rhodes, opening the Ladino language and culture to a staggering range of influences. Because of he diferent influences, Ladino songs often sound like an amalgamation of traditions as diferent as epic Spanish romances, Bosnian sevdalinkas, and the down-tempo folk dances of Thessaly.
In their live performance, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble provided a decidedly modern and liberal take on the Ladino musical tradition, introducing instruments, techniques, and arrangements that, as Mendilow noted several times, “have really nothing whatsoever to do with Ladino culture,” including the Brazilian berimbau, the alto saxophone, and the clarinet. Furthermore, Ladino music isn’t designed for many performers. It was usually sung a cappella by women while they were doing housework. However, while Mendilow wasn’t too concerned with staying faithful to the stylistic confines of traditional Ladino music, he did work tirelessly to convey the music’s mood and spirit as accurately as possible.
“I have a responsibility to do my homework, and to do a lot of it.… Any time a musician engages with a tradition and does something that isn’t a part of the tradition already, there are some questions and responsibilities. When arranging a song, the first thing I do is a lot of reading, as well as interviews with experts in Ladino culture,” Mendilow said.
However, when dealing with such old and varied source material, producing a single, “correct” version of any given song can be a nearly impossible task, necessitating some original work by the arranger, Mendilow said.
“We’re playing a game of bizarre telephone, a game of echoes of echoes of echoes.… It begins with traditional material but very quickly springboards into an area that’s…linked to the Ladino tradition but is as much the composer’s domain as anything. Sometimes this leads to keeping the melody faithful, but sometimes it leads to a recomposing of the melody.”
The group’s somewhat untraditional sound is also a product of its members’ musical backgrounds. While Mendilow grew up with Ladino music during his childhood in Israel, none of the other five members of the ensemble had any experience with it prior to meeting Mendilow. Andy Bergman, a Berklee School of Music graduate, ehcoed this idea.
“My own background doesn’t really inform me about Sephardi music,” Bergman said. “I’m more familiar with Ashkenazi music and Klezmer.”
Lead vocalist Aubrey Johnson echoed Bergman but noted that her musical background is even further from Ladino music. “I’ve been singing jazz, pop, and R&B my whole life,” Johnson said. “I wish I could authentically do what Ladino singers do, but I can also do my own interpretation on it, which is a fun challenge for me.” Johnson demonstrated this willingness to put her own spin on the music in the show’s closing song, during which she scatted a variation of an intricate Ladino melody with ease.
During the rest of the performance, the music’s literary basis was constantly at the forefront. Between songs, Mendilow frequently elaborated upon the meaning of the songs’ adventurous and passionate lyrics in fairytale fashion, possibly setting a record for the number of times the phrase “Once upon a time” has been said at a concert.
However, Mendilow also explained the mood and emotions associated with the Ladino tales through his imaginative arrangements, heavily using percussion and vocal techniques to convey the eerie mood of many of the tales. For example, during “Una Noche Al Borde De La Mar,” which focuses on a sailor’s lonely sea voyage to exile, percussionists Kieta Ogawa and Tareq Rantisi used chimes, triangles, and shakers to produce a swirling, bleak sonic landscape that evoked the sounds produced by the wind and the ocean. Meanwhile, Mendilow and Johnson combined in a distant, echoing duet that captured the loneliness and uncertainty of the narrator. In honing in on these powerful emotions, Mendilow actually departs from traditional attitudes towards Ladino music.
“Traditionally, these songs were somewhere between a talk show and a soap opera…. They weren’t intended to be taken seriously, even though they’re really dramatic. I love to get into them as if they were for real and bring the drama out,” Mendilow said.
Ladino is a dying language—fewer than two hundred thousand people currently speak or understand it, and most of those people are elderly. It’s very rare to find Ladino taught in schools, even in Israel. However, due to the efforts of groups like the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, ancient culture surrounding the language will be preserved, even if the music itself is a product of modern ideas.