"It should be stated from the start that Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom: Ladino Songs Renewed does not aim for ethno-musicological authenticity. Indeed, the entire question of authenticity becomes a bit murky with an aurally transmitted music that has recreated itself again and again in different homes, tinged by the musical styles and tastes of each location and time, from Arabic maqam to the Foxtrot. In any case, so much of what passes for “authentic” today is itself a quasi-invention, in which Ladino songs — that would have been sung unaccompanied and that most frequently represent the more modern European repertoire — are performed in a “Medieval” style, with voices trained in art-song backed by a combination of early music and Mid-Eastern instruments.
Ours is a deliberate artistic exploration, and my approach is first and foremost that of a composer rather than a cultural curator. It starts with a love affair with the melodic twists and turns and the tales, humour and imagery these songs convey. And it is grounded in research into the music and the cultural/historical contexts in which it figured; field recordings, academic study and the opportunity to work firsthand with experts on Ladino language and culture play a necessary and ongoing role in creating Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom. Before lifting a pen I often spend weeks with a song, listening intently and internalizing the music and tale while researching its function and cultural context. Only then do I ask questions that may lead me away from tradition and into my own imagination: “What is the imagery in the song and how was it used? What can I imagine the mood of the story, or the emotions of some of the characters, to be? And how, given all of this, can I use the musical tools available to me, and the expertise of the Ensemble members, to bring these tales, moods and emotions to life in a way that will feel real to me, and that will give audiences a vivid emotional experience?” I must emphasize again that this is my own interpretation, often diverging knowingly from traditional ways of singing. For example even the darkest, most gruesome romanzas (see for example Levantóse El Conde Niño) were typically sung in a light-hearted fashion, almost like a game that no one took terribly seriously. My arrangements are intentionally more dramatic, designed to make the story come alive as though it were a cinematic experience. Yet despite this creation there must always be a tether back to the source material, and this sets up a constant, delicate dance between curating traditional material and creating art that springboards off of it. My great hope is that we respectfully introduce new listeners to the fantastic kingdom of Ladino song, and that we give seasoned audiences a fresh take on familiar material.
I suppose this is a way of saying that whatever faults or flaws you may find in this project are my own as an artist — not the tradition or the songs themselves, songs that, after all, have been around for quite a long time and will, I trust, endure. The kingdom of Ladino song is much greater than what we interpret."
—Guy Mendilow, Boston MA USA Sept 2012