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Jewish Journal

A theatrical pilgrimage to Sephardi’s ‘forgotten kingdom’

by Jonathan Maseng

March 20, 2014 | 11:19 am

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble will perform Sephardic music at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 27. Photo by Gretjen Helene

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble will perform Sephardic music at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 27. Photo by Gretjen Helene

It’s often said that Sephardic culture gets shortchanged in the Jewish world, particularly in comparison to its more famous Ashkenazi counterpart, but as of late, Los Angeles has been awash in the sounds of Ladino and the culture of ancient Spanish Jewry. Now that L.A.’s first Sephardic Music Festival is coming to a close, Ladino lovers need look no farther than the Skirball Cultural Center for continued enjoyment of Sephardic music. On March 27, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble comes to town, bringing with them a worldly, refined style and a fresh new look at Sephardic music.

Guy Mendilow, 35, said the concert at the Skirball will represent a homecoming of sorts for a man who’s often lived life like a nomad. “First grade I started in Israel, and I finished in Los Angeles. Second grade I started in Johannesburg, South Africa, and finished it back in Israel; and third grade we were in California; and fourth grade in New Jersey.”

Mendilow grew up in a family of educators — his mother worked with children, and his father was a university professor and musician. “Many of the people who were over at our house, no matter where we were, were musicians,” Mendilow said recently by phone from the East Coast. “People just got together and sang. That’s really what you did. Parties, for us, were you danced and you sang.”

Growing up in such an environment meant that Mendilow caught the music bug early. “I’ve been touring since I was 10 years old,” he said. And, the wide variety of locales in which he lived influenced his musical tastes. He was especially moved by the Ladino music he’d hear in and around the Jerusalem neighborhood he and his parents called home when in Israel.

“I guess somewhere along the line I just fell into this rabbit hole,” said Mendilow, who never planned to become so deeply involved with Ladino music. Ladino, for those who don’t know, is a Judeo-Spanish dialect that weaves some Hebrew with Medieval Spanish. It is spoken by a dwindling number of Sephardic Jews around the globe.

“Our main touring show is ‘Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,’ and that’s what we’re bringing to [the Skirball],” Mendilow said of his theatrical concert piece, which blends poetry, narration and music into a nearly continuous piece exploring the rich culture of Sephardic Jews from Greece and the Balkans, communities that were devastated during the Holocaust.

Mendilow performs alongside his ensemble, an international group composed of five musicians who work with Mendilow to bring the stories to life. Mendilow calls them “really more of a cast than a band.” They hail from as far away as Argentina and Japan, and the ensemble even includes a Palestinian.

“We know how to listen to one another,” Mendilow said of his cast mates. These are “people who have a specialty, but are not so locked into that specialty that they can only exist in that specialty,” he added.

The Ensemble performs at a variety of venues, Jewish and non-Jewish, including schools, cultural centers and universities. “We don’t just play for Jewish audiences, we play for all kinds of audiences,” Mendilow said, admitting that performing for kids holds a special charm for him. “Children are an audience that is brutally honest with you.” When you bomb in front of kids, you know it instantly.

“I work with Ladino music because I love really, really good melodies, and I’m a total nut for stories,” he said. “I’m not interested in this music because it’s Jewish; I’m interested in it because it’s good music.”

And though the ensemble’s sound may seem authentic in many ways, Mendilow admits that to make Ladino music work for today’s audiences requires some modifications. “To perform these songs authentically ... for the most part, they wouldn’t have any instruments ... and I would have to be a woman,” he said, adding, “which is a problem, beginning with my name and ending with everything else.”

Mendilow looks forward to the concert at the Skirball. Like all his gigs, it gives him a chance to take an audience along on a musical pilgrimage. “My hope for an audience that comes to our show is that they’ve had a moving, emotional experience. That they feel they’ve been transported to some other time and other places, and that it’s been a bit of a musical adventure, a sound trek!”

And most of all, he hopes to spread his love of Ladino music, story and culture. “Our way of sparking interest is, I guess, through giving an audience a kind of experience, an emotional experience,” Mendilow said. “Taking an approach that brings these stories to life in a way that will feel real to me, and to a Western, modern audience ... It’s really more about the journey in these concerts.”

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble will perform at the Skirball Cultural Center on Thursday, March 27 at 8 p.m. For more information and to order tickets, visit the Skirball’s Web site at www.skirball.org.

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