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'We sing of pain and love and death and we dance about it'

In one of his rare interviews, Giannis Haroulis, the self-taught, record-breaking Cretan troubadour shares his images of Greece, as he prepares to perform in Melbourne and Sydney

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Giannis Haroulis. Photo: Yiannis Margetousakis Photography

09 February 2018

It is a comforting factor that the 31st Lonsdale Street Greek Festival - host to Giannis Haroulis' inaugural performance in Australia - is exactly that, a street festival, which means that we will be spared the usual drama associated with the troubadour's concerts in Greece, which are sold out within a few days, sometimes hours, leaving people frustrated, with tickets becoming a highly sought-after treasure.

Born and raised in Crete, Giannis Haroulis had his first musical experience at the age of six, when his father – craftsman, musician, and luthier – Manolis Haroulis taught him how to play the mandolin. Soon after, he got his hands on his first lute and started studying traditional music.

Since the age of 15, he has played in festivals around Crete, but his claim to fame came when he took part in a 2002 tribute concert to Nikos Xylouris at the Lycabettus Theatre in Athens, where he rose to the status of the natural heir to the legendary singer's legacy.

Giannis has now recorded five personal albums, collaborated with almost all of the Greek music greats, performed many concerts in Greece and abroad, and shot to stardom, being hailed as a phenomenon, nicknamed 'a Cretan hurricane.'

To his loyal followers, he's just Giannis; a true and simple man of the people whose music is an opportunity to celebrate, to experience spontaneous joy, to come together in a shared Dionysian experience, to connect with one's real emotions.

People come out of his concerts with a sense of contentment and cathartic fulfilment, as if their insides are somehow realigned.

Authentic and spontaneous, Giannis Haroulis approaches tradition in a contemporary way. His true power is in the songs themselves, their melody and lyrics, which he delivers with passion and simplicity.

Prior to his first visit to Australia and performances in Melbourne and Sydney, the self-taught, record-breaking, heart-captivating singer and lutist gave an interview - which is a rare thing in itself - to Neos Kosmos.

Where did you grow up, Giannis?
I was born in Heraklio and grew up in Exo Lakonia, a village in Lasithi.

What are the images that come to mind when you think of life in Crete at the time?
I was lucky to experience life in Crete before the advent of technology. For a group of kids a village like the one I grew up in offers everything you need to grow your imagination and get a sense of freedom. We were always on the go, either running or riding our bikes, in mountains and plains.

Was it hard to adapt to life in Athens?
It had its up sides and down sides. My first time in Athens was during my 'student years', since I didn't go to university. It was a chance for me to leave home and make a journey, which I hadn't anticipated to last until today. The main challenge was the change of pace I saw in people and daily life. Another was coming across some hard images, seeing things that people in a village would not allow for.

Which are the songs that defined you?
I choose different tunes to express myself at times, which keep me company, according to the experience and emotions of every moment. That's why I'm grateful to the composers and songwriters who give me this space.

What is a Greek festival to you?
I can only speak of the Cretan festivals, many of which I have attended as a lute player. A lot of good work is done there, as far as I see it, when it is beautiful and not too self-important. This means that people simply get in tune with each other through song and dance and food and drinks and sitting together at a table. A strange harmony comes through the chaos when this happens, this tuning offers comfort and elevates your soul.

When you travel abroad, which part of Greece do you bring along in your luggage?
A part of Crete, where I come from and where most of my experience in my time comes from. Apart from that, I carry songs from Crete and the rest of Greece, each of them a chronicle of our lives.

Are there favourite voices of yours, books or poems that you treasure, that you'd give to a young child of the Greek diaspora as a guide to life?
I would give them an excerpt of the introduction to Captain Michalis (Freedom and Death) by Nikos Kazantzakis:

"The human soul becomes almighty when it is taken over by a great idea. You get scared when you realise, after bitter ordeals, that there is a force inside us that can surpass the force of man, you're scared, because from the moment you realise that this force exists you cannot find excuses anymore for your insignificant or cowardly actions, for the life you lost blaming others and you know that it is you, not luck nor fate and not the people around you, it is yourself who has the whole responsibility of whatever you do, whatever you become. And then you're ashamed of laughing at the burning soul who asks for the impossible. You realise for good that this is the human value: to knowingly ask for the impossible."

If we don't shy away and have faith in this, as Kazantzakis says, then the miracle happens and the impossible becomes possible!

What is it about Cretan music that has us all under its spell?
When we're talking about Cretan music, we include all the other styles that have been fused together, either coming from Smyrna or from the various conquerors who set foot on the island. Cretan music, for me, is something that elevates me; it gives me power and life. It combines sadness and joy, we sing of pain and death and love and dance about it. The same goes for all traditional styles of music in Greece and it is no accident that these songs still talk to us.

What is tradition to you? Do you feel like you're a keeper of the flame for the next generation?
I used to see tradition as a basis. Now I realise that a basis is something stable, something that keeps you grounded, while music sets you free, so I can't say that music is the basis. I will say that it is something that facilitates our way to expression and freedom. These are the ways paved by our elders to help us express ourselves and our times, so that we can have something to give forward. This is the question. So if there is anything each of us can do, it is to find beauty in our time and describe it.

How do you feel about friends who have left the country in recent years, who have migrated?
My sister left the country recently and having seen how she had been looking for work in Greece, and her difficulties, I cannot be angry at her for leaving to go work and create in another country.

Do you see any light in Greece today?
If you look at a burnt forest from afar, all you can see is the dark colour of tree trunks turned to charcoal, but if you approach and get close, you can see some fresh grass and small flowers springing from the ground. This is a law of nature and the same is true for Greece.

* Giannis Haroulis performs at the 31st Delphi Bank Lonsdale Street Festival today, Saturday 10 February (Delphi Bank Stage, 7.00 pm) and at the 36th Sydney Greek Festival on Friday 16 February (The Factory Theatre, 7.30 pm). For more information about the festival go to facebook.com/events/202482900325458/
* For a taste of Giannis Haroulis' music, listen to this Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/minosemi/playlist/17ZDBmSydKIEgRANdDqpNP

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