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Xylouris White: Don't call us free jazz

With the release of Xylouris White's third album 'Mother', George Xylouris talks about the connection he has with drummer Jim White and how their sound is more goatish than free jazz

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Xylouris White. Photo: BLÅ/ @BlaaOslo

24 January 2018

Over the past few years Cretan lute player George Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White have been thrilling audiences all over the world with their haunting and intense sound.

Xylouris White was formed five years ago, but the beginnings of the Greek and Australian's collaboration can be traced back to the early 90s in the small inner city music venues of Melbourne.

At the time, White was playing in revered Australian band The Dirty Three with violin player Warren Ellis and guitarist Mike Turner, while Xylouris was playing with Xylouris Ensemble.

Xylouris says the beginning of the duo's sound was slowly making its way into the music-verse even though the band was almost three decades from being formed.

"I could feel something with Jim the first time we played together with The Dirty Three," he says. "Warren and Mick would stop playing and give us parts of the song when we were doing drums and lute and I could feel that connection then.
"Jim was coming to see Xylouris Ensemble often when we were playing back then. We were talking with Jim and asking him, 'when are you going to come to Crete and visit us?' We didn't really think, or didn't have a plan to put things together, but we had a feeling that it could be something strong without us saying it.
"When he came to visit us after all these years I thought it was a good opportunity to go to the studio and do something. On the way to the studio we saw that the road was full of goats. So, from then, goats have been in our lives."

Xylouris isn't joking when he says goats are in both his and Jim White's lives, as the animal is a prominent symbol of the duo's music.

"Journalists talk to us often in interviews and ask what music do you guys play? We say 'goatish'," he says.

"I believe that we don't try to take our music in any particular direction and make it rock or punk rock or jazz or free jazz or world music.
"Like it is with mountains and goats. You know, how goats are lively, and they go up to the mountains and look after the rocks. The rocky mountain also gives you a part of your character. Nature gives character and cultivates the character of the person that lives in this natural environment. So, I believe that people's character goes together with the nature they live in."

While labels are unavoidable when discussing music, Xylouris prefers to talk about how the music makes you feel, and when Neos Kosmos describes his sound as haunting, he finds the association agreeable.

"Ahh, haunting, that is a nice word," he says. "I haven't thought about it that way. But I'm happy you say that because that means you listen to the songs and then you carry [them] around with you. That means we got some of your feelings and that's good."

Xylouris White's ability to get into your feelings comes from the intensity when lute player and drummer combine. And Xylouris feels that even though they are from two different cultures, both roles within the music head in the same direction.

"It's basic stuff like accompanying and keeping the rhythm in different parts of the melody," he says.

"When I play in Crete or with Jim in Xylouris White, I make percussion sounds with my instruments. I play with my fingers and I play parts of the melody or the whole melody. The lute can take parts as a solo, so even though those two instruments are so different, they have very similar directions in the role they keep in the music.
"On these two instruments you can keep multiple characters. So those two instruments together as a duet describe that strong character of what they are doing. So maybe that is why you find it haunting. Trying to play melody and rhythm and to play with dynamics has to do with what I am doing in all of my life and what Jim White is doing in all of his life. In both directions there is intensity."

After three albums and five years' worth of touring Xylouris says that he and White have developed an almost telepathic connection on stage.

"We look at each other and know how to move to the next step, how to move on and we change together and that has to do with the time we have played together all these years," he says. "We have known each other for more than 25 years but it also has to do with the feelings and the characters."

While the intensity of Xylouris White is notable in album form, watching the duo play live is a mesmerising experience. The Greek lute player revealed that audience members regularly seek to speak to him after their performances to share their profound emotional experiences.

"People come to us after the show and say 'I was crying during all the show'," he says. "I find that so inspiring and unforgettable and it's a strong experience. I find that when you play from your heart the audience takes that and finds it touching and I believe because we love so much what we are doing that it goes to the people."

Although Xylouris has travelled the world and played live to global audiences he never loses sights of his Cretan roots and it's something he has no choice over.

"I feel stuck on traditional music sounds," he says. "I'm stuck there. That is my base, my mother. Even if I want to escape that, in some way I can't. Because I love to discover the same thing over and over again for years and years.
"I have played the same tunes of traditional Cretan music for more than 40 years now. I still discover the same songs every time I travel around Crete and see different players and listen to different recordings.
"Cretan music has differences even from village to village with a distance of only 10 kilometres; there are different styles, different colours. So, that gives me the opportunity to discover the same thing and discover myself again and again. I am able to play with little changes to the plectrum on my lute and little movements and that takes me back."

For Xylouris, being able to share his Cretan traditional music to audiences all over the world gives him a great sense of Greek pride.

"It's a wonderful feeling to do this - to have a connection through music with different people and different cultures," he says.

"It's a beautiful feeling. I have the opportunity to play, to connect and I take it. It's so nice and beautiful to see people move and dance to traditional stuff from Crete.
"It has to do with how you're giving it, how you do it. That which moves me is the connection and the interest.
"I want to keep, the movement in terms of the old dances here in Crete. Old and young. I want to keep thinking how many people have danced this rhythm in the past? And that goes generations back and now, here, to see the young people dance the same dance and to think about the great grandmothers and great grandfathers and put these two things together."

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