It’s an otherworldly and exotic smorgasbord of sounds, but there’s a story behind each song performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble.
For the man whose name graces the band, which performs Oct. 12 at the Clayton Center for the Arts, the job he undertakes with his talented peers is akin to the work of a filmmaker, he told The Daily Times recently. “Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom,” the title of the show they’ll bring to Maryville, is a portrait of people lost to history’s tide who lived in and wandered faraway lands, but there are familiar elements that anchor it all.
“There are several things that go into this — one is that, obviously, we’re telling stokes that come from a part of the world that most people know very little about, and that’s because of the Nazis,” said Mendilow, describing the music, culture and history of the Sephardic Jews at the heart of “The Forgotten Kingdom.”
“The reason they don’t know these communities from the Ottoman Empire is because they were wiped out, to the tune of 93 percent,” he added. “So how do you present stories from such a different time, a different world, a different culture? I feel like that’s part of my job, to take a traditional piece of material and make it something that feels alive and relevant to an audience today, as if we were making a movie about it. I learned these songs from very scratchy field recordings, but you get to the essence of telling a story in a way I feel like would resonate. You’re using exotic meters and instruments, but the point is, it needs to be familiar enough.
“It’s like any good movie or show or book — you get lost in a new world, but there has to be things that are familiar about it, otherwise you just get overwhelmed. It’s like ‘Game of Thrones,’ which is 70 percent familiar and 30 percent new, and that’s really any author’s job or composer’s job when working with this kind of material. The thing with working with music in a language people don’t understand is, to me, really exciting. There’s an emotional power in music that I think very few words can capture; I can’t capture it as a lyricist, but there’s a power in music when we hear it and we don’t listen to the words and we get swept up in the emotionality of it. It can take you places that words cannot so easily.”
As a boy, Mendilow grew up in Israel, the United States and South Africa; his father was a political scientist and his grandfather, born in 1903, was a linguist. His grandfather came of age when World War I marked the end of the Old World and the beginning of a new one; his father was born the same year as the nation of Israel. Through both men, Mendilow heard stories that fascinated him, and dinner-table conversations were often lively ones about geo-political change and the need to preserve traditions and cultures on the brink of extinction. In particular, he learned the story of the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain via the Alhambra Decree; they migrated to other parts of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe and Greece, where Nazis destroyed the Ladino culture, as it was known, and wiped entire communities off of the map. After leaving home, he kept returning to those stories, he said.
“I had to digest a lot of these stories from Ladino songs and put them together in a framework that made sense to me,” he said. “History can be a very dry subject, until you start looking at it from the point of view of people and seeing colors coming together and remembering that when these people were around, they didn’t know the ending like we know the ending. So you try to place yourself in this time of transition, when people are feeling really energized and really motivated and like they have the power to create something new and different and something no one has seen before — and where does that lead? To the train to Auschwitz.
“It’s like it can’t be happening to them, only it is, and to put yourself in that kind of place, but from the point of view of ordinary people on the ground who are caught up in this kind of thing ... to me, it’s the most agonizing and vibrant and hopeful and real story I know to tell, because it’s not just their story, it’s our story in one way or another.”
In putting together the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, he’s assembled artists who are as much ethnomusicologists as they are musicians. Members of the group are faculty members at various arts schools and have toured with everyone from Bobby McFerrin to Yo Yo Ma to Amanda Palmer; the band was formed in 2004 and has put together four touring shows that they tour around the world. “The Forgotten Kingdom,” however, may just be the most personal for the band’s namesake, and the stories, while specific to a certain people and culture, are universal as well.
“These are timeless stories, and I think that’s part of the reason I’m so interested in ‘The Forgotten Kingdom,’” he said. “Individually, these stories are the kinds of stories that we tend to relive and that tend to fascinate us still today and continue to captivate. They’ve been around for a long time because they tend to be good stories. On the one hand, these are stories that come from a very difficult place and a place also of suffering; they are stories of what it’s like to look at everything you love and see it taken away. But on the other hand, what is it like to keep on going after that? That’s not just a Jewish question.”
And while the language barrier may seem like a roadblock to full understanding those stories, Mendilow’s soothing narration is both educational and enthralling. It may be a history lesson, but it’s certainly not a dry one, and the music used to teach it ensures that it’s a truly interactive experience, he said.
”In this show, narration and music are intertwined; the function of the narration is to create the framework, and then the music takes over, and it’s like the audience is co-creating that story with me,” he said.