When George Sampson Sapounidis PHD, thought to learn a traditional Chinese folk song and then perform it before a Chinese audience in Ottawa, Canada, where he worked as a federal government statistician in 1999, he could not have imagined what surprises life held for him in the new millennium.
The cliché that life is stranger than fiction certainly applies to Mr Sapounidis. The performance of the traditional folk song “The Girl from Daban City” before a 2,000 strong audience on Chinese New Year that set him on a road to China where he has performed to great success and brought Greek music to Chinese audiences of up to 30,000 strong for some of his concerts.
“The Chinese audience in Ottawa applauded this tall, gangly Greek Canadian singing his heart out in Mandarin every 15 seconds. It was a big paradigm shift stumbling on a new culture and new music,” Mr Sapounidis, aka Chairman George, told Neos Kosmos.
The song, he said, became his calling card in his first endeavours in China. The success of that concert, supported by a good sense of humour and an indomitable lack of self-doubt, took him to two Olympic ceremonies and has seen the unlikely rise of the Greek-Canadian’s star in the most populous nation on earth.
While mathematical statistics was his bread and butter in life, music had always been close to his heart.
His mother, Rallou “Rhea” Sampson, is an artist in her own right, sister Stephania is a visual artist and his father Theodore Sampson, a professor of English literature, always encouraged his music.
In 1969, his family left Canada to travel to Greece and, for a time, the family settled there. He first played the guitar in public at the American Community School of Athens concert where he was a student. He described that first public appearance as “a huge paradigm shift in terms of recognition and realising what I could do.”
During the 1970s, while he studied at McGill University in Montreal, he would travel around the Greek islands in the summer performing folk songs and ballads. It was something that he continued to do in the 1980s with his musical partner Gaston Bernard who were to form Greek fusion band Ouzo Power.
“We would land at a harbour and look for restaurants close to each other and ask to busk there. It was fantastic time.
He took up bouzouki lessons and steeped himself in the music of the Rebetika, Tsitsanis, Theodorakis, Xilouris and other luminaries. He sang not only in Greek, English, and Mandarin but also Italian, Hebrew, French, Farsi and Arabic – a ‘linguistic, musical chameleon’ as Mr Sapounidis describes himself.
After the Chinese New Year concert of 1999, he invited other artists to join him to perform at a Canada-China Multicultural concert in Ottawa attended by officials of the Greek and Chinese embassy in 2000. Four months later, in October, he received a call from the Chinese cultural attaché inviting him to represent Canada and perform at two international music festivals in China.
“At the end of a 14-hour flight, the clouds parted biblically to reveal brown land below unravelling endlessly and the pilot announcing: ‘We have entered Mainland China’.
“It was a ‘Eureka’ moment for a Greek looking down on this country of mythical proportions and with a culture stretching back in time in equal proportion as Greece. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.”
His performances at the multicultural festivals were a big hit and the start of a roller-coaster ride to the unexpected.
“I was had entered a culture that was foreign to me, I was thrust in front of the media and saw the opportunity of what I could do with this culture. It was like seeing myself on a huge tidal wave – was I able to ride that tidal wave?”
His rise was captured in the Canadian television documentary entitled “Chairman George” which also follows his lobbying to take part in the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics where the handover for the next Olympics went to Beijing. This lead four years later to a second nationally broadcast Chinese television documentary and performances in the Olympic Village of both the Beijing Olympic and Paralympics Games. He bore the Olympic torch in Athens and Beijing.
“It was on my birthday on 13 July 2001, when I heard the news that Beijing was getting the 2008 Olympics. I thought to myself: “George, you are probably the only Greek in the world who is Canadian and can sing in Chinese. You have got to get yourself invited to the closing ceremony in Athens when the Olympic flag is passed on from the mayor of Athens to the mayor of Beijing’.”
So began a round of letters and lobbying to Canadian, Greek and Chinese officials in which, thanks to his bureaucratic background, he was able to frame his desires in just the right way to win approval.
Over the next 20 years Mr Sapounidis has performed over 40 times in 25 cities in China, bringing the musical flavours of Greece to China in Greek and in recent years he sang Greek standards in Chinese. He has repeatedly appeared on Chinese television drawing audiences of over 50 million.
He improved his command of Mandarin by going to high school Mandarin classes in Ottawa and is now able to hold a conversation with anyone on the streets of China and has tailored his singing style to sing in Mandarin.
In 2012, he took early retirement from his government statistician job to focus on his music. The following year he began the process of identifying Greek songs that would work well in Mandarin.
“Over two years we boiled it down to songs from many genres of Greek music – rebetika, endehna, laika, dimotika. I would translate the songs into English and send them to my Chinese assistant and she would translate them using the same number of syllables per line as the original Greek song and ensured that the end of each line rhymed while also keeping the meaning of the original song.”
The result was the Greek-Chinese fusion album “Bringing the Greek Party to China!” which has proved a great success.
Later this month, Mr Sapounidis and his band Ouzo Power perform in Montreal with a brand of Greek power rock-tinged rebetika. He is still very much on his musical odyssey.
“As an artist you just do whatever your heart brings you to do and incredible things happen one after the other.”