Breathing new life into old songs

by Patrick Lauppe

"In fact, it’s very difficult to know what the music sounded like back then," said Guy Mendilow between songs during his ensemble’s concert and discussion on October 25 in the Kirkland House Junior Common Room, sponsored by Harvard Hillel, the New Center for Arts and Culture and the OFA Learning From Performers series. Referring to the Ladino musical tradition, which traces back to the Sephardi Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, this statement served as a sort of thesis for Mendilow’s entire musical project.

Acknowledging the difficulty in playing Ladino songs as they originally sounded, Mendilow has taken them as his own, arranging the works for an international ensemble of two percussionists, a saxophonist, a violinist, a vocalist and his own acoustic guitar. In the meantime, he has transformed this culturally specific musical tradition into exuberant improvised music with universal appeal: part jazz, part folk rock, part world music.

Mendilow grew up in Jerusalem, where the Ladino tradition still thrives. Originally, he tuned the music out, a fact which he now attributes to "dated arrangements."

"It was only once I was able to get past the arrangements," he said, "that I came to appreciate the songs."

His goal in this ensemble is to present these songs in settings that emphasize their sheer melodic and lyric splendor, so that even listeners without a direct connection to the Ladino tradition can respect their power. Violinist Tomoko Omura, a Berklee College of Music student originally from Japan, arranged one of the pieces the ensemble played last week. She described a similar intention: "When I chose to arrange this song, I heard the beautiful melody. In my arrangement, I tried to complement this beautiful Ladino melody as best as I could."

Kirkland House was the ensemble's first stop on a national tour to promote a new release. In addition to evocative arrangements, this recording features some of the remarkable instruments, including the bow-like berimbau, and vocal techniques, including overtone singing, featured at the Harvard concert.

[Caption: The Guy Mendilow Ensemble performing at Kirkland House. PHOTO: Sarah Berry]