by Cameron Albert-Deitch
Once upon a time. Four simple words. Yet we put them together and all of a sudden, we are ready to be mesmerized. These four words are a signal: we are about to be told a story.
On Wednesday, November 7, at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Guy Mendilow started his show with the words, “This evening, it’s our pleasure to share with you some of our favorite tales. And these stories have a bit of history. And because history is really nothing more than a story, we say, ‘Once upon a time.”
Mendilow, 34, who proves to be both storyteller and musician, describes his group, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, as a “multi-national performing arts ensemble.” While their act is undeniably more a musical concert than a theater production, it’s easy to see why he describes the band as such.
The ensemble takes traditional Ladino music – once sung by Sephardic Jews between their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 and their eventual settlements in North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Balkans – and gives it a modern day styling.
“Every place the Jews landed, they soaked up elements of what was happening on the ground – but the identity was also preserved,” says Mendilow. “You have these wonderful melodies that sometimes wander from mode to mode and they have a beautiful way about them. And then you get into the stories, and when you understand the language, these stories are captivating.”
Mateo Mulcahy, director of Community Projects and Events at the Old Town School of Folk Music, notes that the Guy Mendilow Ensemble fits perfectly into their World Music Wednesdays concert series.
“What we see here [with the Guy Mendilow Ensemble] is a fusion,” Mulcahy, 47, says. “There’s a violin and a Brazilian berimbau and all this different instrumentation … so it’s all those styles melded together.”
The diversity of the ensemble isn’t limited to the members’ instruments. The band’s lineup on November 7 featured five musicians of five different nationalities. Mendilow is from Israel, drummer Tareq Rantisi is Palestinian, multi-instrumentalist Andy Bergman is from New York, violinist Tomoko Omura is Japanese and singer Sofia Tosello (on loan from her Afro-Peruvian band Tangolando) is Argentinian.
“We tour a show the same way a Broadway cast would tour a show, so I work with a rotating cast of characters,” says Mendilow, “because it is about the show, not necessarily about us. Obviously you couldn’t do this without the musicians, but were you to catch us on our next tour, the configuration might be a little different, and that’s by design.”
Ann Bashook-Leiner, 79, and her husband Marvin Leiner, 78, have long enjoyed Ladino music and were surprised by the musical complexity given to songs that were traditionally very stripped down.
“We are used to a much purer rendering of the music – just the guitar and a vocalist – so this was very different,” Bashook-Leiner says. “I think the instrumentation was great, they’re really very talented musicians.”
“These were women’s songs that were never meant for the stage or trained voices, and they didn’t have any instruments, save for maybe a drum,” Mendilow responds. “We’re springboarding off of it and, I hope, creating music and arrangements that are fulfilling for us and the audience as well.”
Then again, all Mendilow has to do to find out if his music is fulfilling for his audience is get up on stage and say, “Once upon a time….”
MEDILL // Cameron Albert-Deitch