For the love of rebetika

Neos Kosmos speaks to artistic collective Masonik about its love of rebetika and the pursuit of creative expression without limits

In the words of co-founder Basil Psanoudakis, Masonik “is like a visual realm. Experimental is definitely how we describe it”.

The Perth-based artistic collective, which incorporates graphic design, film and sculpture with music as its foundation, was founded by Basil, Tony Monaco and Pax Andrews in 2006.

A high school media teacher by day, Basil recalls coming home and just wanting “to keep working on these media ideas that I was experimenting with in the classroom”.

Enter Wheldon Thornley and Patrick Bindon, and after numerous conversations and collaborations with musicians and artists, Masonik was formed – a fitting name considering the group’s ethos.

“My wife said ‘you guys sort of work in these networks, like the Freemasons’. And she thought of Masonic, which has the word ‘sonic’ in it meaning sound.

“We’re not Freemasons at all,” he assures with a laugh.

“But we thought it was a nice way of thinking about working, about collaborating and also, the fact that we like to venture into these other fields outside of music.”

In the last decade, their work has received much attention, through involvement in a number of festivals, exhibitions and performances including Australia’s video art festival Channels and Perth’s Fringe World Festival.

But it was a grant, funding the collective’s trip to Greece in 2014, that would take their work to new heights.

With a growing interest in the rebetiko genre, namely that of the 1920s, the collective was given an opportunity to visit the genre’s country of origin for a five-week stint.

Despite his Greek background and family’s encouragement, at age 45, Basil had yet to visit the Mediterranean.

“I always said I would go when the timing was right,” he says. He ended up being right, his timing impeccable.

“We just fell in love with the music, particularly the rebetika pre-1937.

“We knew when we were going there we were going to meet up with a Greek vocalist and that we had a concert lined up at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation,” Basil tells Neos Kosmos.

But as soon as the group arrived, he admits they knew the project would develop into something much bigger than they imagined.

In true rebetiko style, they visited ancient ruins, the Piraeus port, “and other iconic places for rebetika music and just started playing”.

For Basil, however, this trip ended up being about more than the music.

The only group member with Greek heritage, being in Athens was a chance to be reacquainted with his culture.

“Greek is very much a part of me. It was just fabulous to go there and to speak – and everyone laughing at how I spoke Greek,” he says with a laugh.

When it finally came to their big performance, the group made the call to hit the sold-out venue unrehearsed, which is why he says “for traditional musicians, the way we work is a little bit of a challenge”.

Choosing to present a modern interpretation of rebetika, there was no bouzouki, baglama or clarinet in sight, opting for a laptop, iPad, bass guitar, keyboards and saxophone instead.

“I was using the iPad to sample old rebetika songs, but also the Orthodox church, and Greek composers like Iannis Xenakis and Yianni Christou. Plus the video we were projecting was playing the ambient sound of the things that we filmed, so that became an instrument too,” he tells.

Upon returning Down Under, the group, inspired by their experiences, took their resources and created 14 sculptural pieces comprising of video, audio and visual art components under the title of ‘Alter’d Lament’.

A call-out from Melbourne-based art exhibition Antipodean Palette – a celebration of Greek Australian art and artists – would see timing play a big role for the collective once again.

Within a few weeks, they had something new to be excited about, with their gramophonic resurrection boxes accepted to feature as the first art installation of its kind, which Basil recalls as a “great experience”.

“For us here in Perth, to have our work go to Melbourne – the Greek Mecca in a way – feels really good, as though this is where it should be.”
In just 12 months, part one of the ‘Alter’d Lament’ exhibition has been shown across three galleries.

But how do people respond to such an unorthodox approach to a traditional form of music?

Though they have received mixed reviews, for Basil one experience comes to mind from their concert in Athens.

“At the end of the night this old man came up to me – he was about 80 years old – and was almost crying. He said ‘these songs are so old, I never thought for a moment you could do them this way’. He gave me a little hug and said thank you so much, you brought memories back.
“I thought someone like that would be offended or find it disrespectful, but he found it refreshing.”

Since returning to Perth the collective has had various projects showcased around the country, including internationally in Spain and Vienna.
Their most recent soundtrack, Solomon’s Shadow, was recorded as part of a live cinematic experience for Perth’s Fringe World festival, incorporating theatre, sculpture, and live music.

That’s what makes Masonik so refreshing for both young and old; their unwillingness to limit their creative expression, resulting in a rewarding experience for the artist and the viewer time and time again.

“We were in Greece doing rebetika with an opera singer, then we were back in Perth putting on a theatre piece and working with visual artists,” he laughs.

“It’s so good to be able to say ‘right, we’re not going to put ourselves in a little corner here. Let’s open it up and see what will happen’.”