Community: it’s an ever changing, ever engaging aspect of travel. We come from community, travel through communities, engage and explore differences and things that connect. We connect with each other, and come to understand each other, through the many aspects of community from food to music, to dress, to art, to language and turns of phrase, to what and how we teach our children, to how we speak with and about friend and stranger.
Forming and maintaining community is intertwined with constancy and change, with the handing on of tradition and allowing tradition to speak to changing circumstance.
That’s something Guy Mendilow has been thinking about in his work as a music educator and bandleader. With his Guy Mendilow Ensemble, a quintet of musicians who come from Israel, Palestine, Argentina, Japan, and the USA, he has been exploring Ladino music.
That is a music which has its own history of community and change, arising from culture, community, language, and geography which arose when Jews were expelled from Spain 1491. With them they brought stories: tales of history, stories of conflict and resolution, ideas and language handed down, communities rising and falling and at times disappearing, from the Balkans and around the Mediterranean, from medieval times to the Holocaust.
“What has haunted me as I’ve created this production is how it gives us a glimpse into the end of an era, the destruction of an older world,” Mendilow says. “I wanted to explore what it was like to see the breakdown of empires, the glimmers of hope that then evaporate. What is it like to be caught on the wrong side, in that kind of nightmare? What is like to witness your world ending? How did the moment, which seems so inevitable in our historical hindsight, actually feel to those living it?”
That is what is explored in Music from the Forgotten Kingdom, a recording distilled and honed from the experience of many stage performances of the material and illuminated with detail that studio recording can add. There are tales of knights and ladies, of everyday experiences, love songs and lullabyes, and a piece that speaks of the trains heading to Auschwitz. The songs are recorded in language which blends Spanish with Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. The emotion and the stories come clear, whether you understand the words or not — in fact there are two versions of the recording Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom,. one with spoken introductions to the stories in English and one with the music alone. They both work. The songs are not museum pieces, either. In common with many who follow folk tradition, Mendilow had to decide whether to stay strictly within the tradition or letthe ensemble’s own ideas into the songs. He chose the latter. “It’s about rendering a traditional way of life in bold, relatable colors,” Mendilow says, and adds “It’s an evocative trek through former Ottoman lands, an allegory that ultimately begs some questions about ourselves today, and the ways these stories continue to play out, in a modern guise.”
Jennifer Cutting and the musicians who work with her in the Ocean Orchestra know about changing and intersecting aspects of community, too. Composer, arranger and bandleader Cutting has long been interested in working in areas where Celtic music meets electric instruments, and where folk rock meets ancient chant. On one piece on their most recent recording, she’s also exploring where Bhangra (itself music from India that’s a mix of Western pop with Punjabi tradition) meets Highland bagpipes.
That recording is called Waves. There are traditional Celtic tunes (and one that pokes fun at traditional ballads), a sharp look at the wrongs of unchecked real estate development, a graceful song for parting and grieving called Steady As You Go,. There is that tune with the bagpipes and Bhangra which is called Everything Glows (The Curried Haggis), and the title track, Waves, which arose from Cuting’s thinking (while reading about the mystical side of quantum physics) about the wave as a metaphor for life and how we are all connected. Community, indeed.
With Cutting on electronic keyboard and accordions. Lisa Moscatiello on vocals, whistle, and acoustic guitar, Andrew Dodds on fiddle, Zan McLeod on bouzouki, mandolin, and electric guitar,Tim Carey on Highland bagpipes, Steve Winick on vocals, Petruccelli on electric bass, and Robbie Magruder on drums. the core of the Ocean Orchestra creates music grounded in and respecting Celtic traditions while confidently venturing to its boundaries at times. Change and tradition: those have always been part of Celtic music, and Celtic communities. That’s an idea that is part of Jennifer Cutting and the Ocean Orchestra song Among the Leaves of Autumn
What was will never be again
What will be is uncharted
What’s now is change so let’s begin
Among the leaves of autumn
Change and community: two things much in discussion in politics and public life at this writing, two things we always encounter when we become travelers, whether that travel is across the world or down the street. Change and community: two things about which artists often ask good questions and have illuminating perspectives. Take a listen to these two recordings and see what ideas they suggest for your next journey.
You might also like to know that the Guy Mendilow Ensemble is based in Boston and New York, and Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra has a home base in the Washington DC area. Catch them in live performance if you can.
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