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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Arts & Letters

Exploring Our World

Terra Nostra, Savina Yannatou, ECM 1856.

Vocalist Savina Yannatou has carved out an unusual career that refuses easy categorization. She has studied and performed a wide array of musical styles, from the early, pre-Baroque music of Europe to jazz to the art songs of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis; her extensive discography for Greece’s Lyra label ranges as broadly as her curiosity, from folk lullabies to music from the Sephardic Jewish community of Greece to religious music from Congo and Argentina. Yannatou has always been an adventurer; now, the singer takes her explorations even further on Terra Nostra, stitching together material from Greece, Bulgaria, the Hebrides, Sardinia, Lebanon, Spain, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Caribbean island of Guadalupe, France, and Italy. Recorded at a live concert in Athens in November 2001, her newest album signals a turning-point in Yannatou’s artistic sensibilities and career direction. As on previous albums, she culls traditional music from across the globe, but each selection is now transformed through a distinctly personal prism.

Yannatou and her excellent band, Primavera en Salonico, do not present each piece discretely; instead, they take each bit of material as one possible element, one single color, in creating a much larger mosaic: each fragment — melodic, stylistic, harmonic — is taken out of its original context, examined, and then placed into a new setting. To that end, each musician chooses from a battery of available techniques, styles, and themes. Even on the rare occasion that Yannatou and her musicians perform a particular song in a relatively straightforward way, as they do with some of the Asia Minor selections, the song’s placement on the album ultimately transforms the way we hear and understand the material.

Disarmingly, the disc’s opening song (“Me to fengari perpato,” from Kalymnos) is sweet and gentle, with tender string accompaniment — in many ways, the least representative track on the whole album. However, it’s a calling card that demonstrates Yannatou’s vocal prowess. Similarly, the ethereal “The fairy’s love song” from the Hebrides is the height of delicacy, and features a lovely solo by Kostas Vomvolos playing accordion. While that instrument is not often heralded for feats of grace and refinement, Vomvolos displays a light and deft touch through which his lines sing.

But the real strength of the album begins when Yannatou starts crossing cultures. On previous albums, Yannatou has often pinpointed artistic connections that derive from historical reality: the multiculturalism of Asia Minor is one such example. When Yannatou sings an old rebetiko, “Xanthi evreopoula” (called here “No seas capritchioza”), the lyrics are not just in Greek. She sings in Greek, Turkish, and Ladino (the language of the Sephardim) — just as her predecessor, famed rebetika songstress Rita Abatzi, did when she recorded this song in the 1930s. Not surprisingly for an artist who has made a specialty of the music of Asia Minor and more particularly of the Sephardic community of Greece, the interconnectedness of Greek, Turkish, and Jewish styles is a recurring theme in Terra Nostra. “Nightingales,” a love song, offers all the musicians abundant opportunities to emphasize the lavish melodic ornamentation so beloved in Asia Minor. In “Kadife,” Yannatou’s rising vocal curves and subsiding sighs are prefigured by a sensual, meandering taxim (unmetered improvisation) played by Yannis Alexandris on the oud.

Musical Mobility: A Conversation with Savina Yannatou

I recently sat down with Savina Yannatou just after her brief tour of New York City and Washington, DC, and asked her what had sparked her interest in music from far beyond Greece’s boundaries. She responded that there is a centuries-old history of musical traditions that we think of as basically immobile that has, in fact, moved from place to place.

“For one example,” she said, “you can find the same melodies in the south of France and in Lebanon. This is not a new phenomenon by any means. Rebetika is another example: many of those musicians were Sephardic Jews who spoke Greek and Turkish. I wasn’t aware of these shared histories and shared traditions when I started; Lyra, my record company, approached me about recording Sephardic songs from Thessaloniki, which became the album, Anoixi sti Saloniki [Spring in Salonica or, in Ladino, Primavera en Salonico, which, ultimately, also became the name of her band]. I did it at first simply because I liked the music; it was later that I began to learn the histories. I was absolutely ignorant in that regard; I was never good at history!” She laughed, and then continued. “Before then, I was doing my own songs, I was doing contemporary art songs. And as a student, my training had been entirely in European art music — I didn’t have any background in even Greek folk music. So that record opened another world to me. After I did an album of Sephardic music, moving to a project that encompassed the Mediterranean countries more broadly was an easy and logical move.”

Another seminal moment in Yannatou’s artistic development was studying in London. “In 1989, I did a year-long graduate program at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama,” Yannatou recalled. “It was the first chance I had to meet people from very different backgrounds at school, and I also worked with many different ethnic communities in London. Greece was so homogeneous ethnically, culturally, religiously — we didn’t know other people’s customs or traditions. Although a year is nothing, that experience really opened me.”

But the experience offered her more than just intercultural dialogue. “We did a lot of improvisation. Everyone was experimenting there. I felt more free after I studied at Guildhall.” As Terra Nostra has demonstrated, improvisation is increasingly central in Yannatou’s work. “Now, I sometimes give performances of all improvised music, and sometimes performances that are entirely solo improvisations. But solo voice improvising is very demanding. You’re very exposed; it’s very risky. You are so naked on stage, so exposed — you’re not just playing with sounds in this kind of work, but you need to be true emotionally. But you can learn how to do that. I don’t know how to do it yet, because I haven’t given enough of those kinds of performances. You need to do it a lot, you have to organize your material very well, and you need to work with it extensively.”

The war in Iraq and its political, economic, and cultural consequences figured prominently in our conversation. For Yannatou, the most immediate impact of the current world situation was that her band decided not to come to the United States with her. After lengthy musing on and much agonizing about her antiwar stance, she chose to travel to the US and do these concerts with a group of musicians who had never played with her before — a scenario that, in retrospect, the singer called “both exciting and risky,” especially considering the improvisational skills demanded of the musicians. A larger-scale US tour is planned for fall 2003.


Similar forces are at work when it comes to other regional connections as well. In the group’s rendition of the traditional Spanish song, “The boatman,” hints of Spain’s Arab-Andalusian heritage emerge through the filigreed arabesques of oud and qanoun accompaniment. The Arab world and Greece do not seem very far apart at all in Yannatou’s geography, and draw even more closely together when Yannatou pairs with Lebanese vocalist Lamia Bedioui, who is featured on several songs here. Vocally and artistically, the two make a striking duo. The singers have worked together before; by this point, they have figured out how to blend their voices so well — with such similar styles, vocal colors, and delivery — that a listener might believe that he or she is hearing one vocalist singing against a tape of herself.

In the traditional Lebanese lullaby, “Let Rim sleep,” the joint singing is so seamless that those more fantastically inclined might think that the improvisations spring from some superhuman, two-voiced spirit. With Yannatou’s haunting vocal improvisations amplifying Bedioui’s words, it’s a memorable performance. But their attentions are not just to the tender. The desolate “Hey Het,” a lamentation from Lebanon, features Bedioui in a heart-tearing performance that captures the barrenness and homesickness of an emigrant. The duo’s sweetness sours into great rancor in “The song of the mother-in-law,” a Berber song in which an old woman claims abuse by her son’s wife and curses the younger woman.

And in a strange and yet completely believable pairing, a fourth-century hymn to the Virgin Mary takes its place next to a secular song from Asia Minor. A Maronite Christian hymn attributed to Saint Ephrem, “Glory to the Name of God,” segues into the melodically and lyrically haunting “Stopa kai sto xanaleo,” which warns against the perils of a ravaging sea. Recontextualized in this way, the hymn is quickly desacralized; instead, we focus on the structural parallels of the compositions, both of which feature difficult embellishments and ornamentation. Similarly, the dirge-like, Provençal “Goodbye for poor Carnival” immediately plunges into the Arab Christian devotional song, “Wa habibi.” That deconstruction and destruction of boundaries may pose an intellectual (or even emotional) challenge to some. In these performances, Yannatou asks: East, West, religious, worldly — what kinds of meaning, relevance, or authority do those words hold for us?

But those provocative questions are old hat to Yannatou; what I’ve described thus far is frankly just a revisiting of artistic and intellectual ideas that have occupied her for years. What is truly fresh — and truly exciting — is her new exploration of avant-garde vocal techniques. This experimentation stems from a whole host of sources: avant-garde jazz; European and American performance artists, most notably the celebrated Greek American Diamanda Galas; and the Central Asian country of Tuva’s ancient art of overtone singing (in which a single vocalist sings multiple tones simultaneously), as derived from the performances of Tuvan diva Sainkho Namtchylak.

Yannatou begins toying experimentally in a Bulgarian song from eastern Rumelia, entitled “Ivan said to Donka.” For this, Yannatou adapts a more hard-toned delivery that sets off sparkling plucked strings and a dark-hued nay flute. But just when you’re lulled into the lilting waves of voice and nay, the arrangement simply explodes with raucous percussion into a furious dance that belies the gentility of the preceding vocals. Several tracks carry that same sense of joy and raw energy; a stuttering accordion offers a splintered melody at the beginning of the tarantella, “Virgin of the Grace,” a composition from southern Italy that is said to have been penned during the Renaissance.

The apex of the album begins in the Sardinian dance, “Ballo sardo,” which opens with the most unlikely vocal technique: the otherworldly overtone singing of Tuva. Accompanied by a host of jangling percussion and zinging strings, Yannatou finally allows her more adventurous self to peek out from her veiled demeanor. It is only then, on the fourth track, that Yannatou opens up her vocals into Galas-style, bloodcurdling screams and arcs of wild, staccato, meaningless vowels (which, it must be said, Yannatou detractors might liken to the cries of an orca). From this point, the album is reminiscent of a shattered mirror carefully refitted into its previous frame: you might think you know what you’re looking at initially, but the shards are throwing light every which way. Either you’ll find the effect chaotic and disjointed, or you’ll be transported.

Several other tracks further expand the theme of improvisation and of pushing the envelope. The art of improvisation as perfected in jazz figures prominently; a jazz-flavored bass starts off the Sephardic song, “Tres hermanicas eran,” and leads the musicians into a heavily Eastern groove spiked by dulcet violin solos. The Sephardic song, “Jaco,” is first presented as a straightforward tsifteteli, but the musicians each take an extended solo in which they play with nontraditional techniques. In “Ah, My God,” taken from the “Missa Antilla” of the Caribbean island of Guadalupe, Yannatou’s vocal improvisation flits in and out between the strong Afro-Caribbean beats laid out by the bass and percussion. The effect is of someone so moved by the hypnotic rhythms that she is compelled to cry out in the most primal way.

As one might expect of a project so influenced by performance art, theater and the spoken word play an important role in Terra Nostra. In the most overt example, the spoken “Close your eyes and see,” Bedioui recites verses by Lebanese poet Mikhail Nouayha straightforwardly in Arabic, while Yannatou counterpoints with a spoken improvisation of nonsensical syllables that create a raw and harrowing backdrop to Bedioui’s words.

A great deal of credit for this album’s triumph should be shared with Yannatou’s band, Primavera en Salonico. It’s clear that, over years of playing together, they have developed a deep, mutually responsive relationship. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the musicians’ give-and-take with each other within Kostas Vomvolos’s tight, smooth arrangements: a hallmark of longstanding groups whose members have gotten to know each others’ styles and quirks intimately. That simultaneous sense of flexibility and compactness — emotional abandon and yet complete technical mastery and control — are especially remarkable on a live performance such as this one.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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