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Savina Yannatou: 'I like blending modern elements with tradition'

As she prepares to come to Australia, the acclaimed singer shares her experience of exploring the songbook of the Mediterranean's multicultural cities

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Savina Yannatou

"The artist's role is always the same, in good times and bad: to be able to transform his personal experience into something that is relevant for others."
07 March 2016

Savina Yannatou is not only one of the most creative and inventive singers to ever emerge in Greece, she's arguably one of the most important vocal artists in Europe. Ever since her debut in the '70s, she has worked with some of the most important Greek composers: Lena Platonos, Nikos Kypourgos, Nikos Mamangakis among others.

For the past 20 years, she has embarked on a different musical journey, with her band, Primavera en Salonico. Beginning with a collection of songs from the Sephardic Jew community of Thessaloniki, she has since continued to explore the musical tradition of the Mediterranean, performing age-old songs with a modern, unconventional approach. The band's latest album is called 'Songs of Thessaloniki', released last year through the German record company ECM, one of the world leading labels in contemporary music. The album includes Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Slavic and Serbian songs.

Coming to Australia to perform this songbook, the singer spoke to Neos Kosmos and shared the experience of this fruitful journey.

How do you choose material for your albums?
Sometimes, we work together with ethnomusicologists such as Lambros Liavas, Markos Dragoumis and Yorgos Papadakis. Other times, a friend will suggest a song that he likes, or a collector who tries to save songs from oblivion. For instance, Alberto Nar, the secretary of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, provided us with a huge collection of Sephardic songs to choose from. Thanks to the internet, we have also managed to come across a lot of material that otherwise would not be accessible without a specialist's guidance. This is how we found many of the 'Songs of Thessaloniki'.

How would you describe the band's dynamic?
The truth is we weren't even a band when we first came together to record the Sephardic songs of Thessaloniki. The arranger, Kostas Vomvolos, had picked the musicians for this specific album, which we had thought would be of interest only for the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and some scholars of the Sephardic culture. We were surprised to see a larger audience embrace the album; even the Greek state showed interest, as it was the first Greek record of Sephardic Jew songs of Thessaloniki, a city which until the 20th century was called "the Balkan Jerusalem". Universities from around the world were also interested in this material. So, having to deal with a high demand from abroad, and since the musicians were keen to continue performing this songbook, we formed a band that we called Primavera en Salonico. Since then, our playing has matured immensely, in my opinion, as has our communication on stage, as well as orchestrations; we all contribute to the arrangements, while rehearsing the songs. One element that was missing from our playing at the beginning was free improvisation. Introducing it to our performances was my desire, which I first expressed on stage at the Womad festival in Reading, UK. Ever since, improvisation has been gaining ground in our concerts, allowing for each musician to participate in a more active and personal way to the creation of the songs. It is obvious mostly on our 'Terra Nostra' CD, which was a live recording. Nowadays, our playing on stage has a conversational quality, or that of a game, always open to the element of surprise. When you improvise, you're not interpreting a musical piece, you are yourself interpreted, through your sound, through the musical piece that you randomly create at that specific time on stage. This is a physical musical creative process that I knew nothing about, before delving into improvisation, and this is why it is precious to me and I don't want to give it up.

'Songs of Thessaloniki' marks a return to the city that gave birth to the concept of Primavera en Salonico, 20 years on. What is the appeal of Thessaloniki?
Reading the history of Thessaloniki, what is appealing is its multicultural identity; the coexistence of different languages and customs of its inhabitants in the past; the way this city became a hub of political and social change; how a part of the population, inclined towards progress, influenced the rest of the population to open up to new ideas and more liberal lifestyles. To me, this is fascinating, though it doesn't reveal the challenges that coexistence posed to all these ethnicities.

The Primavera en Salonico repertoire is proof of the multi-ethnic and multicultural character of Thessaloniki and the broader region of the Mediterranean; it offers a narrative of the way mass migration and a changing economy created multiculturalism. Now that the region is the epicentre of a refugee crisis, how do you think it will be affected?
I have no idea. Things are definitely changing. The trauma caused to the Arabic nations is very deep. Refugees come from regions immersed in terror and ultimate obscurantism. How many will manage to relocate and assimilate, to which countries and in which way, remains to be seen, as well as what will happen with ISIS, how to contain this new Dark Ages that is starting to affect the planet as a whole. A new, unpredictable era is dawning.
You have recently set up a performance, Itinerant Stories, around the refugee crisis. Are you interested in creating political works of art?

No, the political side is not intentional. I always start from a strictly personal perspective, but sometimes the personal becomes political. When I started working on this project, I was interested in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and its references to Shakespeare's The Tempest, through the image of the drowning man. For me, all this was somehow related to the story of my father's generation, but at the same time, it led me to the stories of the migrants crossing the Aegean sea to arrive to the Greek islands. Obviously, what we are experiencing today affects us and leaves a mark on the art that each of us creates.

In what way has the Greek financial crisis affected you?
This crisis has affected everyone, directly or indirectly. Some have sought to find different ways to survive, while others left the country, changing their lives. Any kind of strain that forces us to change things in our lives might have a positive turnout. Some people who migrated due to the crisis, for instance, managed to do what they have always wanted and wouldn't otherwise dare to, for fear of jeopardising a kind of security.

What is the artist's role in this context?
The artist's role is always the same, in good times and bad: to be able to transform a personal experience into something that is relevant for others. But you can't force that - when it happens, it happens by itself. For an artist to try to be socially or politically 'useful', steering their inspiration in a certain way, and deliberately changing focus, is wrong; we have seen monstrosities being created this way, that are useless to people and to art, in general. You are what you are; if that is helpful, so be it.

You are one of the rare examples of an artist who never deviated from your path, never made any concessions. What did you have to sacrifice achieve that?
I sacrificed nothing. On the contrary, I believe that my clear intentions, in terms of what were my interests in music, actually helped me. My fellow artists and producers knew when to come to me and for what purpose. Of course, I have to say that, in the beginning, I didn't have to worry about making a living. When I started, I was living with my parents, I was not independent; that helped me make whatever choices I wanted to, even if that meant to opt to not work at all. So I managed to slowly follow a certain path, which in turn, worked in my advantage when I decided to become financially independent.

Last time you were in Melbourne, you admitted in an interview with The Age that "when I'm overseas, it's not the Greeks who come to listen to me".
What does being Greek mean to you?

What I meant is that when we play abroad, Greeks don't usually come, because we sing in many different languages and that is not to the liking of many people who want to be in touch with the songs that remind them of their country of origin. Language is an important element of our identity; when people are in their own country, they don't miss it, but as soon as they find themselves in a foreign land, the words of the mother tongue gain new meaning, as do all the familiar sounds and melodies. So it's natural for these listeners to expect Greek artists that come to their adopted country to say something about them, in their own language, through the melodies that they long for.

What is your most vivid memory of your last visit to Melbourne?
The Greek people who welcomed me and took care of me, making sure that everything went well with the concert. There was a lot of warmth and care and I have been in touch with some of them since.

*Savina Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico will play at the Thornbury Theatre on Thursday 10 March (for more info, head to www.oztixspecialoffers.oztix.com.au/Default.aspx?Event=58447). On Monday 14 March they will be playing at the WOMADelaide festival (www.womadelaide.com.au/tickets).

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