Guy Mendilow started first grade in Jerusalem and finished it in Los Angeles. He began second grade in Johannesburg; by the end of that year, he was back in Israel.
Today, Mendilow, now 32, makes his home in Boston, but he believes growing up in schools and concert halls all over the globe transformed him into a world musician in the truest sense of the phrase.
Leader of the multinational collective Guy Mendilow Band, Mendilow creates and re-animates music combining touches of countless cultures and traditions into one fun, funky blend. His music isn’t a forced fusion. This sound is in his blood.
“My father was a jazz musician. And my first laugh was because of music. My mother was singing me this horribly depressing Israeli folk song as an infant. It was the first time I burst into laughter,” Mendilow told The Chronicle. “I’m not sure what that says about me as a kid.”
Growing up in conflicted areas such as Israel and South Africa, Mendilow said he understood the power of music to unite and heal early on when his family was invited to services at a rare, integrated church in Johannesburg in the midst of apartheid. The congregation “knew there was little chance they would convert us, as we’d moved from Israel,” said Mendilow. “But it was powerful. Here were blacks and whites coming together in the most horrific of circumstances, singing together for hours.”
Aside from frequent tours with his band, Mendilow works in much the same way as that rebellious church. Since 2006, he has aligned himself with Seeds of Peace, an organization that empowers young leaders from both sides of some of the world’s most heated conflicts, from Israel and Palestine to Pakistan and India.
Mendilow called Seeds of Peace “an instant fit” for his method of musical teaching.
“Teaching through music is a covert way to teach,” he said. “Students come in and see a music workshop. That’s true, but through the workshop they learn important life skills and tools for communication.”
For much of his life, music truly has been Mendilow’s best method of communication; it was the tool that bonded him with each community he worked to join while moving around the world growing up.
“Music was what we did,” he said. “Wherever we landed, we’d make music with people.”
As such, Mendilow’s musical communication is multilingual. It’s a “pigeon dialect of music,” he said, “cobbled together of all different languages I learned as a kid. In one way, it’s very rich. In another, it makes life very complicated.”
Mendilow’s 2009 album “Skyland” featured myriad exotic instruments (jaw harp, thumb piano and bamboo flute all are heard) played under bright, beautiful harmonies. Some songs are sung in Hebrew, some in English, and they sound like the moment the sun peaks out after a summer rainstorm.
The album is a sonic encapsulation of how Mendilow grew up. At the dinner table, for example, one would hear several different accents, as each of his siblings spent their formative years in a different country.
His family’s personal Diaspora partly inspired Mendilow’s most recent project. Called Songs of Imagined Migration, Mendilow has collected and adapted long-lost songs of the Judeo-Spanish community sung in Ladino, a dying language that mixes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish and others, as if it were the Yiddish of Sephardic Jews.
The idea was brewing in Mendilow for years.
“I grew up next to a Ladino community just outside Jerusalem. It was in the air,” he said. “I’d hear this stuff, but didn’t think anything of it.”
Considering Ladino all but unknown in the United States, Mendilow set to work collecting songs, some centuries old.
“If a song has lasted 400 years, it must be good,” he said.
Along with the rich, vibrant Ladino music, Mendilow associated with the story of migration ever-present in the Ladino culture. The story of Ladino Jews, emanating from expulsion from Spain, is “a clear example of how Jews are resilient and adapt to new locations,” said Mendilow. “Cultural boundaries are porous.”
Like Mendilow’s own story, Ladino Jews “up and moved, taking with them a rich culture that shifted over time, eventually including elements of the new places they called home,” he said. “It’s a universal story. It’s my story.”
Want to go?
Guy Mendilow Band, with Eastern Watershed
Oct. 24, 8 p.m.
Thunderbird Café, Lawrenceville
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)