Singing tales of queens and their slaves, forbidden love and siren songs, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble brings a new perspective to the epic folklore of Sephardic Jews with their most recent program, The Forgotten Kingdom.
On Saturday, Nov. 4, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble will perform songs from The Forgotten Kingdom in Brandi Recital Hall. A five-person group with members from Argentina, Jerusalem and the United States, the ensemble’s music combines folk songs with Mendilow’s modern orchestration, bringing these lesser-known traditions into the modern spotlight.
Mendilow, the group’s leader and composer, said their music deals exclusively with the past, but themes of heartbreak and family struggles resonate with audiences today. “Every culture has the right to be known and every community demands to have its history at the table,” he said. “But I think that history, like stories, goes further. We learn about these things because they also tell us about ourselves and about the present.”
The program will contain songs about the expulsion of Sephardic Jews in the 14th century through their exile from Spain and Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century. The group’s lyrics all come from the oral tradition of Sephardic communities. They are sung in the songs’ original Ladino, a language that combines medieval Spanish with the languages of the Sephardic Jews’ places of exile. These lyrics weren’t written down until the 19th century, but Mendilow traced them back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
Originally, women with no instrumental accompaniment sang all of the songs from The Forgotten Kingdom. Mendilow researched their historical significance and function to adapt these songs for their group. He then took artistic liberty with the orchestration, writing it to reflect his own interpretation of the lyrics.
Mendilow acknowledges the risk of misrepresenting these folk songs by adding his own music to them, but he sees it as an opportunity to make these songs more relevant to the present. “You need to decide if you’re going to be a cultural curator or if you are closer to the spectrum of being an artistic creator, which means that you are going to be doing something new based on something old,” he said.
While the ensemble aims to make their audiences aware of the experience of the Sephardic Jews, they do not want their performance to feel like a history lecture. They tell an emotional story that they hope will leave the audience questioning themselves and the world around them.
“When you come to a show, you’re not coming to be hit over the head,” Mendilow said. “You’re coming to be swept away.”