Guy Mendilow

Singer and musician
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Gretjen Helene

Music Credits: Esta Montaña D Enfrente (The Mountain Ahead Burns) and Una Noche al Borde de la Mar (One Night at the Edge of the Sea) , De Salóniki A Auschwitz (story & song) and Hermanas Story performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, from the show The Forgotten Kingdom.

Guy Mendilow: I create shows that use the emotionality of music together with long-form storytelling to whisk people away too long ago and far away in order to ask themselves questions about our own here and now. Usually in a play sometimes the music sets the tone, and then the real storytelling vehicle is the dialog? And here it’s the reverse, here it’s the storytelling which sets the tone, but the real actor is the music, only the music is in a language that is an endangered language that very few people speak, and most of our audiences don’t understand.

Jo Reed: That ‘s Guy Mendilow, and the music is by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, and this is ArtWorks, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.

Guy Mendilow is a musician and storyteller. As you heard, at the heart of his ensemble is the belief that stories and songs from other countries and other centuries can do much more than entertain. They not only can give us a sense of the past, but they can connect to contemporary challenges. Mendilow is particularly known for telling stories of the often overlooked Sephardic communities around the Mediterranean and Balkans. He sings traditional songs in Ladino—a language spoken by the Sephardic Jews that’s almost lost. But while Mendilow uses the traditional lyrics of the songs, he reinterprets the music. Somehow keeping its integrity and preserving its essence. As he makes clear: he is not an ethnomusicologist—he’s an artist who has a deep respect for Ladino music. He is not trying to recreate it. However, he’s inspired by it. The Guy Mendilow Ensemble’s album and show The Forgotten Kingdom is a beautiful illustration of this in practice with its links between the old and new through story and in music.

Guy Mendilow welcome. Tell me about your project The Forgotten Kingdom?

Guy Mendilow: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you for having me, and I just want to say what an honor it is, and I listen to your podcast quite voraciously, and you’ve had some really fabulous guests. I guess you could say it tells the story of the ending of a world, an ending that begins with the First World War and that moves through the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and that ends definitively and finally with the Second World War. And as much as it is about the end it’s also about the beginning, the beginning of a newer world, which is our world. And this is a show which is based on music that comes from the former Ottoman Empire, and they’re all women’s songs that come from Sephardic communities, and the music itself comes from mostly the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

Jo Reed: And who are the Sephardim?

Guy Mendilow: The Sephardic Jews are Jews that initially came from Spain in the same year, 1492, when Queen Isabella sent Columbus out to discover a continent on which people had already been living for tens of thousands of years. She also ended the tenure of two groups of people in the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors, and the Jews. And the story is that in the month of March in 1492, the Jews were given four months to close up shop. All assets were effectively frozen, and under penalty of death, they were to leave, carrying only what they could carry on their physical body. And seven months later the same happened with the Moors. And while this ends a chapter in history called the convivencia, which is anything but a lovey-dovey living together, but a living together of Christians and Jews and Muslims, nevertheless. Uh, it also begins a new story, a new chapter, which is the story of settling down, and at least as many Sephardic Jews saw it, the process of becoming indigenous again in places across the Ottoman Empire where they were welcomed by the Sultans, so literally spanning all the way from northern Africa and into the Balkans.

Jo Reed: What’s distinctive about their music and their story or stories, I should say?

Guy Mendilow: To some extent, every cultural tradition is distinctive, right? What is distinctive here is in some ways when you look at Ladino stories, especially the very old ones-

Jo Reed: And let me just interrupt. Ladino is the language that they spoke?

Guy Mendilow: Yes, right, yeah. So the language itself is fascinating. And when the Jews left Spain, they spoke the same Spanish that Christopher Columbus did, that Isabella and Ferdinand and this whole cast of characters spoke, and there’s nothing unusual in settling down in a new place, and there’s also nothing unusual in adapting to a new home and having that new home adapt to you. I mean that’s every immigrant’s story. That’s my story. That’s the story of everybody in this ensemble, and in many ways, it’s the story of the United States. What is unusual about them is that the door that closed behind them when they left Spain closed with such finality that they were really cut off, and while in Spain Spanish continued to evolve over courses of hundreds of years until it is today what it is today. One of the things that’s fascinating about it is that if you want a good indication of what Spanish could’ve sounded like 500 years ago, you can look at this language. And it has many names: Syphaundi, Hathatvia, Spaniolite. Today it’s called Ladino by many, and then there’s this kind of academic umbrella term, Judeo Espanol or Judaic Spanish.

Jo Reed: And is this your background and culture?

Guy Mendilow: It is not, no. no, I grew up listening to some of this music in Jerusalem.

Jo Reed: You grew up in Jerusalem? You’re, you were Israeli, or you are Israeli?

Guy Mendilow: Yeah. My family has triple citizenship- British, Israeli, and now American. And so, no, this is not my tradition. You know, I listened to some of these songs in my boyhood home in Jerusalem. I went to school in a fairly large what was then a robust Ladino community of immigrants, mainly from places like Morocco and Turkey, and you would hear these songs sometimes wafting through the windows, and as a boy, I had no idea what to make of that. You know, these songs-- I only work with women’s songs. In these communities, they were not sung onstage usually, and they were not meant for commercial recordings. They were sung at home, and they were generally sung a cappella, and the people who sang them were not professional singers. These were songs that accompanied daily life.

Jo Reed: So songs you were doing as you were kneading the bread or wringing out the laundry—

Guy Mendilow: Exactly, exactly. Okay, so what does it mean as a modern artist interested in drawing on these traditions inspired by these stories, inspired by these melodies. Wanting to do something with that. What are my responsibilities and how do I fit in? Where do you draw the line between being a cultural curator on the one hand and really representing a very specific time and a very specific place and the way that a story would’ve been told, and entering into that story and telling it the way that it would’ve been told and the resonance that it would’ve had, or to be an artistic creator, which is to create something new, and you lose and you gain by doing both. I’m definitely not telling these stories the way that they would’ve been told.

Jo Reed: You’re not trying to be a literalist.

Guy Mendilow: No, no. First of all, it would be impossible because, I don’t come from Salonica and I can’t sing these songs the way that Salonikis would’ve sung them, nor would I want to. Who would come to a concert of unaccompanied a cappella women’s songs? You know, very, very few people, and in this country and in North America in general, we know very little about these communities, to begin with, and there are all kinds of reasons for that as well including systemic racism. You know, on the other hand, if an audience leaves one of my shows feeling that, ah, now we’ve heard Ladino song, then they would’ve been done a severe disservice. So, you know, that’s a really tricky place.

Jo Reed: I’d like an example of that tricky place.

Jo Reed: The first song on The Forgotten Kingdom is “The Mountain Ahead Burns.”

Guy Mendilow: Uh-huh.

Jo Reed: Tell me the story of that song.

Guy Mendilow: So here’s a good example of a way that we’re telling a story very differently from the way that it would’ve been traditionally told. “Esta Montana D’Enfrente” is the first number in the show, and it is never translated in the show, but it’s about this kind of incredible loss but also this incredible strength. “Esta Montana D’Enfrente,”is the lyrics-- this is a poor translation, forgive me, but the mountain ahead burns, and that’s where I’ve lost everything, and I want the trees to be my pens and the sky to be my canvas and the sea to be my ink so that I can write a story that nobody here is going to understand, neither family nor neighbors.

<Musical excerpt>

We use it as an opening because it kind of sets the scene for the story and because it’s a very fiery opening, and, yeah, that felt right. <laughs>

Jo Reed: I want to hear more about the show itself.

Guy Mendilow: Sure.

Jo Reed: If I’m in the audience, what can I expect from the Guy Mendilow ensemble?

Guy Mendilow: Sure. So the show is a long-form show where storytelling intertwines with music, and it tells a story through a collection of vignettes, through a collection of scenes. It moves chronologically in time from, you know, pre-World War One, pre-collapse of Ottoman Empire all the way through the Second World War. These times necessarily aren’t necessarily mentioned; there’s only one place where you actually get a date in the show, uh and that also is deliberate. Uh, and the reason for that is that there are so many parallels between those times and ours. That I’d like to blur some of the – the sense of the historical because to me what is so driving right now is not necessarily looking to the past but look at the past as a way of also looking at our present. So that’s the backdrop for the show. One of the unspoken premises is that usually in a play sometimes the music sets the tone and then the real storytelling vehicle is the dialog, and here it’s the reverse, here it’s the storytelling which sets the tone, but the real actor is the music. Only the music is in a language that, which that is in an endangered language that very few people speak and most of our audiences don’t understand.

Jo Reed: And the storytelling is in English?

Guy Mendilow: The storytelling is in English, yeah. And that also is deliberate in the sense that music is a very powerful emotional language. In a way it’s a very direct emotional language, and so just like the show is told through a series of vignettes and you kind of connect the dots, I think that to me it’s really interesting what happens when you give somebody just enough direction through the storytelling, which is also accompanied by music almost like a soundtrack, but then the arrangement, the music takes over, and you wind up filling in the details of the story in your own mind. And in that sense, it’s a lot like listening to radio or to a podcast where you don’t get a visual image. You supply the visual image, and you create that visual image by drawing on your own background, and you wind up creating characters in your own image and you kind of inadvertently imbue the whole story with yourself, and that also creates a resonance, a point of connection. And I’m really interested in that idea because to me there’s something really powerful that happens when an audience begins to be a part of a storytelling and kind of an imaginative force along with you rather than simply receiving everything from you.

Jo Reed: So, you’re telling a story that stretches over a half a century. What do you actually convey in the small vignettes that make up the whole story?

Guy Mendilow: They begin with daily life. It’s really asking the question, what was daily life like? What did it look like? What were some of the aspects? What were some of the humor, the flare, the color, because these were tremendously colorful communities, and the stories were very colorful and full of spunk and wit. But it then moves through there to stories about the way things are changing, and one moment in the show where things really begin to change is a story called “Una Noche al Borde de la Mar,” which initially comes from Sofia, Bulgaria, in the 1930s and that we’ve kind of recast to tell the story of a captain from the former Ottoman Navy who was a decorated war hero who as fascism spreads he is seeing that so much of what he fought for is falling apart and that so much of what he gave of himself for and that he’d lost so many men for is meaningless. It’s hollow. It’s empty. And in the end, his own family is taken away from him because he is simply the wrong ethnicity and he’s simply caught on the wrong side, and he walks out on this kind of life and this kind of nation which is moving so much towards fear and hatred and ignorance, in his opinion. And this, by the way, is a true story. This is one of my own family members. This show is totally invested with scenes from my own family.

Jo Reed: And which song does that introduce?

Guy Mendilow: That’s “Una Noche al Borde de la Mar.” There’s a beautiful sand animation from that that the NEA helped fund, actually, with Ukrainian sand animator, Kseniya Simonova.

Jo Reed: Is that “One Night at the Edge of the Sea”? Yes.

<Musical excerpt>

Guy Mendilow: And from there it begins to tell the story of the ending of this world. So in the first half, it’s all just scenes from daily life and the types of stories that would’ve been told, and from there it really moves into this uncertainty as you’re up all night and you’re listening to the news. But who’s to tell what it means, and you’re trying not to wake the children but at the same time there’s such urgency in your conversation, and stories begin to be coming from a place of darkness even though they’re still edged with hope. There’s this massive refugee crisis that happens which looks frighteningly like the refugee crisis that are happening right now, to the stories of people who really want this world to end, you know, the people who were so hurt and so overlooked and felt that they were depleted of their rightful place and who found themselves looking to leaders whose fire seemed to be their fire and whose dreams seemed to be their dreams and who promised them a way back to greatness. You know, it’s hard to even say because it’s not a thought. It’s an emotion. But they really felt that they were doing the right thing and that morality and that history was on their side, and then it ends with the Second World War kind of as a way of asking could they have known where all this was gonna lead? Would we have known where all this was going to lead? It ends with the trains to Auschwitz.

Jo Reed: Yeah, because in The Forgotten Kingdom through these stories and songs, you’re detailing the lives and the destruction of the Sephardic Jews.

Guy Mendilow: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And in fact, one of the last songs “The Penaliticik One” is Salonika to Auschwitz. And it’s heartbreaking. And you’re right, I don’t know Ladino. And you don’t have to know Ladino to be affected by it.

Guy Mendilow: Yeah, and that’s a poem that was written in Auschwitz by somebody who was a survivor but who was one of the few, maybe the only member of his family to make it out.

<Musical excerpt>

The poem was literally written on a bag of torn cement in Auschwitz. It’s written by W. Kleim and Salonika, and yes, that’s at the very end of the show, and it’s this kind of unbelievable moment like, can you imagine that you would end up in a place like that? Who could’ve imagined it? I mean one of the things that is so challenging to deal with this kind of history is that we know the ending.

Jo Reed: Right, right, right.

Guy Mendilow: We say Auschwitz and we take it for granted because we know exactly what Auschwitz was.

Jo Reed: I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Guy Mendilow: Yeah, I mean can you imagine and also just you talk about betrayal. You know, Salonica was such an interwoven city, and all these places were. You know, these were places where for centuries Jews were part of the lifeblood of the city along with Muslims along with Christians along-- I mean these were neighbors who turned on you, neighbors. It’s the stuff where if I were to tell most people today that in a week’s time you would find yourself along with your mother or along with your sister and along with your brother in these crematories, you don’t believe that. That’s not an emotional reality, you know. Just like if I were to say, “You know, in five years the whole United States will cease to exist.” United States has been along less than half of the time that the Ottoman Empire was. We don’t know what it’s like to tackle that, so one of the problems with dealing with this kind of history is that we always see it from our vantage point, but if you try to put yourself on the ground, it kind of rips you up, actually. Uh, this kind of thing unfolding around you.

Jo Reed: And that’s what you would attempt to do in The Forgotten Kingdom, which I have to say is such a beautifully evocative name.

Guy Mendilow: Thank you. <laughs> Thanks.

Jo Reed: What inspired that?

Guy Mendilow: A lot of things. I mean the forgotten kingdom is a metaphor for the kind of richness that existed, that seemed to evaporate overnight somehow. Of course, it didn’t actually evaporate overnight, but if you look at the Second World War and you think about Salonica, which at one point was a city whose population was over 50 percent Jewish and now is like less than 1,000, you know, it’s this kind of nefarious magic trick. So that’s part of it, and part of it is simply referring to this world, this kind of system of values, this older world which was lost in the First World War, in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and then through the Second World War.

Jo Reed: What do you think this combination of story and music that resonates with older musical traditions and songs sung in a language that people really don’t understand- most people don’t understand. What is about this combination that’s so powerful?

Guy Mendilow: I think that we’re storytelling creatures. I think part of the reason that we are what we are is because of our ability to tell stories. It’s what allows us to do the things we do, and I think that we live our lives in stories. We’re constantly telling stories about ourselves. Even when we think that we have no story to tell, that itself is a story and a very interesting one. And so I think that storytelling is a very fundamental thing. I know that for me I latch onto stories and I like stories, and I gravitate towards stories, and I think that there’s a lot of power in stories to make us really go places that a lecturer cannot and really reflect in a way that other mediums can't. At the same time, music is this tremendously powerful, emotional vehicle, and this is why I like to sing in languages that the audience won't understand because if what you’re paying attention to is the denotation or the connotation of my words, that’s one thing. If what’s moving you is the raw emotionality of the music, that can take you to places sometimes that words can't, at least not any of my words. And when you combine the two, you have a very powerful tool at your disposal because, on the one hand, you have the story, but then underneath it, you have this very powerful, emotional vessel of music. And it’s the reason that movies rely so much on soundtracks to tell us what to feel and to really create these reactions in us. Try watching any movie and turn down the soundtrack, and it’s a totally different experience. Here it’s the same thing. It’s just because I’m a musician first and a storyteller second, I really like the main impact to come from the music, with the stories kind of paving your way and giving you just enough to go on.

Jo Reed: Tell me the process of creating this music? Because you’re keeping the traditional lyrics, but you’re setting them to music that you compose, or you rearrange. So it’s a new sound, but at the same time, it resonates. You’re not completely ripping it away from its origin.

Guy Mendilow: It’s not, no. Yeah, I would say that it’s still pretty firmly rooted in the music.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it sounds that way to me.

Guy Mendilow: First of all, the process is listening and reading. You know, you listen to field recordings, which mercifully are much easier to find now. It used to be really a difficult thing. Now you can look on websites. It’s incredible. There are whole websites with hundreds of field recordings. But you listen to these field recordings, and you listen to the way that these songs would’ve been sung, and many times there are different versions of these songs. And you look to the people who sang them and where they sang them and when they sang them and how they sang them and why they sang them and all this context. And at a certain point part of the process is then putting that aside, and that information informs everything, but then there’s the question of, okay, were I to cast this as a movie, what would I see playing out? And were I to try to capture some of that emotionality through a soundtrack, what would it be? And at this point, you’re moving firmly away from tradition. You’re really moving towards compositional questions, and then it’s simply a process of making sure that your emotional goals and your musical goals are clear and choosing the right tools for the job or at least making the best choices that you have available to you.

Jo Reed: Did you have a musical background? When you were a kid did you study music?

Guy Mendilow: I did. I did. My father was a professional musician before he turned academic, and music was always a big part of my upbringing. I started performing professionally when I was 10 years old.

Jo Reed: My goodness. What did you play?

Guy Mendilow: I didn’t. I sang.

Jo Reed: Oh, you sang.

Guy Mendilow: Yeah, I sung with a choir called The American Boy Choir, and this was a choir school and we would-- this was a choir that sang upwards of 200 concerts a year at a time when we were teenagers, right, and at a time when most adults were dismissing us, thinking what can kids do? We were singing routinely in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and Boston Symphony Hall along with all kinds of places where ZIP Codes far outnumbered the residents in the community. It was an intense amount of work. We rehearsed three or four hours every day. And, yeah, I started playing the piano when I was five, which was not a great choice, considering we were at the time moving just about every year trans-continentally, and that’s the worst instrument to try to haul with you, so I was learning on a little Casio keyboard that I could fit into a suitcase. And so music has been probably the one major constant in my upbringing.

Jo Reed: I can’t let you go without talking about community engagement because I know it’s a very important part of the mission of the Guy Mendilow Ensemble.

Guy Mendilow: Yes. We’ve developed at this point a number of lectures and workshops and master classes, but my favorite way of engagement is by creating residencies that are custom made for specific communities and with very particular goals that work from the ground up rather than from the top down. I’ll give you an example. We were just in Wyoming. We were asked to create a storytelling and songwriting residency for the Wyoming Girls School, and this is a holistic and therapeutic school for what they would call delinquent youth. Girls from the age of 12 to 21 who have been in trouble with the law and are basically one step away from incarceration. And we began to think about, okay, who are we working with? And these are incredibly courageous people. They have stories that I think are really important for people to hear because what they wrestle with are things that everybody wrestles with. It’s just that they wrestle within the extremes. They have gone to places that most people thankfully won't go and are coming out of those places through a strength that possibly many people won't know. And so we created this residency for them, which is basically how do you tell your story in a way that’ll resonate with others, especially others who dismiss you? How can you make your story include somebody else? And that kind of work is just tremendously meaningful. It’s the basis for all of our work in the sense that all of our work really is about telling these stories of other times and other places but making them someone else’s story as well so that they can see themselves in it.

Jo Reed: And tell me what’s next for you.

Guy Mendilow: Well, in less than a week we premier a new holiday show, which has no holiday music in it.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Guy Mendilow: It’s all about looking at the heart of the holidays, which to me is a question of how do we become light when it’s growing darker around us, both literally--the days are getting shorter--but especially metaphorically in terms of everything that’s going on, and this is a collection of stories from people who have done exactly that.

Jo Reed: Well, and where’s the show? Where are you premiering the show?

Guy Mendilow: This will be through the Celebrity Series of Boston, and it’ll be at the Kroc Center in Boston.

Jo Reed: Well, Guy, thank you so much for giving me your time, and your music is really beautiful, absolutely gorgeous.

Guy Mendilow: Thank you so much. I just want to thank you for your time and for having me on. It’s a real honor to speak with you.

Jo Reed: Oh, not at all. It was a real pleasure. Thank you.

That was musician Guy Mendilow. If you’re in the Boston area on December 16, you catch The Guy Mendilow Ensemble’s holiday show at the Kroc Center. The Guy Mendilow Ensemble recent album is The Forgotten Kingdom.

You’ve been listening to ArtWorks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the ArtWorks podcast is now available on iTunes—please subscribe and if you like us—leave us a rating—it will help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Embracing and reinterpreting Ladino music.

Watch the video Una Noche Al Borde De La Mar.