Farantouri sings jazz

One of the most significant voices of Greece talks about her participation at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival with renowned saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

This is not the first time that Maria Farantouri visits Melbourne. The acclaimed Greek singer has been in touch with the greek-orthodox community for four decades now, since her first trip to Australia, appearing alongside Mikis Theodorakis. But it is the first time that she is visiting Melbourne to give a jazz concert, on Sunday June 1st, appearing at Melbourne Town Hall with the legendary sax player Charles Lloyd, a veteran of the ‘60s jazz scene.

“What I see, every time I am in Melbourne is that Greeks here are working hard to do something with their lives and succeed greatly”, Maria Farantouri

“I am not part of the jazz community and Charles knows that”, Maria Farantouri is quick to clarify, “but he likes the sound and texture of my voice. He knows that I can deliver a classic jazz performance and reach to the source of this music”.

The two artists met in Santa Barbara, California, during a concert that the Greek singer was giving there. “In the end, he came to meet me and he kissed me”, she remembers vividly. “He bowed down to my feet, as is the Buddhist greeting and express his wish to work on a project with me”. A year later, Charles Lloyd was playing in an Athens open theater and invited Maria Farantouri onstage, to the surprise of the audience. It was the beginning of a collaboration that has been going on for twelve years now and has resulted to the double CD album “Athens Concert”, a live recording of the concert the two artists gave at the ancient Roman theater of Herod in Athens, just below the Acropolis, in the summer of 2010.

The project is the ideal merge of two seemingly incompatible cultures, those of jazz and greek music. The result is seamless, due to the merits of the two representatives of those cultures. A sax master of extreme lyricism, Lloyd is considered today as one of the jazz elders, a respectable figure who represents the ideals of the ‘60s and who never stopped looking for the truth. “He is deeply spiritual, especially compared to other musicians who focus on the technical aspect of their craft”, says Maria Farantouri. “He is immersed in his own mystical world and is always delighted in visiting archetypal music styles”.

For her part, Maria Farantouri is a singer who has been connected with the greatest of the Greek composers – notably Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis – and who is one of the most internationally acclaimed greek voices. Listening to her sing means being transferred to the heart of Mother Earth – or at least, a European perception of it. The warm and tender sound of her voice embraces the listener while her powerful singing is a bearer of the strongest of emotional experiences. “Many people say this to me”, she acknowledges. “They have written that my voice has a healing quality. I cannot understand it, it is something deeper that emerges from my soul. But I can see it happening in other artists, in Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘duende’ for instance, which is an internal force”.

Approaching with jazz sensitivity a repertoire that ranges from the byzantine canon to the traditional greek folk songs and the oeuvre of great artists such as Theodorakis and Eleni Karaindrou, this “Greek Project” is a definite revelation of the futility that lies in labeling music, compared to the essence, which is communication among people and cultures.

“Charles and I communicate deeply in an emotional, personal level, apart from our artistic collaboration. He is a person that knows a lot about Greece and admires my country”, points out Maria Farantouri, while talking about the concerts that the two artists are giving in Melbourne and Sydney (at the City Recital Hall, on June 4). “We will be performing songs that are not in the album”, she explains. “In the first set, I will be singing some old spirituals, two of Charles’ compositions called ‘New Anthem’ and ‘Dorothy’s Studio’, as well as Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’. In the second set, we will present the ‘Greek Suite’, but also some traditional songs from Macedonia and Thrace. It is a merge of both cultures, the greek one and the jazz one. The world of jazz has many similarities to ours. The scales of the blues are pretty much the same to those in the traditional music of Epirus”, she points out, her excitement thinly hidden. “There are things in our culture that we Greeks take for granted”, she says. “We say ‘Theodorakis is ours’ and put him aside. In the meantime, Charles and Jason (Moran, the brilliant jazz pianist who is part of Lloyd’s quartet) were fascinated by his music. Because Mikis is rooted to the byzantine music, his songs are written in this musical language that is very supportive of the jazz element”.

It is a modern paradox, talking about Greek culture, in the midst of a crisis that has made of Greece a paradigm of financial disaster and the subsequent rupture of the social tissue, but in a strange manner, this financial and political devastation is maybe the ideal setting for the country to show to the world its best qualities.
“Due to our tragedy, we are in the spotlight, internationally, these last few years”, agrees Maria Farantouri. “Our album with Charles came out in 2011 and (the acclaimed French newspaper) Le Monde wrote: ‘this country that is in the verge of collapse demands our respect for its rich culture and its deep connection to the intellect, its poetry and its beautiful music’. I have had my share of good reviews, all these years with Mikis, but this was the first time I felt truly proud. Having such things being said about me, in such hard times, made me cry. It is touching and I feel that, as artists, we should build bridges like this with the people, giving them what is essential. I really feel that we stand a little ‘higher’ than the rest of the world, we may have failed in other things, but when it comes to culture, we owe nothing, it is probably the other way around. The thing is that other people should get acquainted to our culture. This is the spiritual connection I felt with Lloyd that night in Santa Barbara.

As a singer who became famous worldwide singing against the military junta, Maria Farantouri could not avoid politics, and was bound to have a strong opinion on the current political state in Greece. “I don’t want to interfere in politics”, she clears out. “I am interested in being a Greek citizen who is part of Europe. I feel European and I want an equal relation with the other people of Europe, who face tough times, but they live better than us. I hope that we work things out, that things will get better, that there will be growth, there will be employment for young people and I hope that Europe will show solidarity. I believe that Europe should reconsider its policy and change its course of action. Greece is part of Europe, this is where we belong, but they will have to take measures to support and protect the people. We Greeks had an overnight growth, for the first time in our history, and it came as a shock. What happened in Greece is really ugly. It is the fault of our political leaders who let things take this course, they didn’t take measures. Perhaps there are things that they know and we don’t. What we do know is that these austerity measures we unfair and were imposed with extreme violence,” she points out. “A vast part of the Greek people has been destroyed, many have died, people are starving, others fled the country, it is a casualty of incredible cruelty”.

Among those Greeks who have fled the country are those who migrated to Australia – hundreds of them, looking for a chance to prosper. She is aware of that and not surprised at all.

“What I see, every time I am in Melbourne is that Greeks here are working hard to do something with their lives and succeed greatly”.

As for the secret of her own success, as an artist who is at the top of her game for five decades, it is simple – or at least it seems this way, coming from her: “Anytime I get up to sing, it feels like I start all over from the beginning. This is what Art does to you, it brings an uprise inside you, it is an overwhelming energy. You have to be prepared, to prepare your mind and your soul. I never stop working on projects, in order to always be alert. Especially since my son grew up and went to live in New York, this is my main concern, as is my husband’s who quit politics and returned to poetry (her husband, Telemachos Hitiris is a poet and a former minister in the socialist governments of Pasok): When you feel so passionate about art, you want to always remain creative, to do serious things and leave your legacy behind”.

And what is her own legacy?

“My main concern is young people”, she insists. “I really want to create a space for young artists, to learn and support their art”. Her first and foremost piece of advice to a young artist wishing to follow her path, is also seemingly simpler: “Total devotion. This is not a profession, it is something deeper. One has to resist temptation, and the commercial aspect of art. Either you’re passionate about it or not”. In conclusion, the great singer shares with us the song that mostly reflects her current state of mind. It is “Oi stihoi aftoi” (“These verses”), one of Mikis Theodorakis’ “Ballads”, with lyrics by the poet Manolis Anagnostakis. It is a song beginning with the words “These verses may be the last/ The last of the last ever written/ Because the future poets don’t live anymore/ Those who were about to talk all died young”. “But in the end he gives hope”, says the singer, reminding us the rest of the song: “A lotus grew out of their sad songs/ Let us be born younger in its juice”. “How beautiful it is to have a poet say something like this to you!”.

‘The Greek Project’ will be held on Sunday 1 June at 7:30 pm at the Melbourne Town Hall, 100 Swanston Street, Melbourne. Tickets are priced at A res.
$109/$101· B res. $99/$91· C res. $69/$61. For bookings visit www.melbournejazz.com or call 1300 723 038. To book for the Wheeler Centre event visit http://wheelercentre.com/events/event/maria-farantouri/