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“We leave a lot of room in the songs. Each musician creates something different every time.” - Savina Yannatou

“Songs Of An Other”, recorded in Athens last October, is the third ECM album by Greek singer Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico. It finds the adventurous collective sailing through traditional songs from Armenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, and Southern Italy as well as Greece, adding a 16th century hymn from the Yiddish tradition.

Once again, the arrangements, by Kostas Vomvolos with input from all band members, find the points that suggest a unity of the traditions, while Savina locates areas where experimental vocal technique can overlap with the idiosyncrasies of folk singing, as folk melody erupts into free areas. The improvisational quotient is stronger on “Songs Of An Other” than on “Sumiglia”, the collective’s 2004 album and the whole ensemble’s growth of confidence is immediately evident. They’ve toured extensively in the last four years and the group sound is at once tighter and liberated. Distinctions between ‘jazz’ players and traditional instrumentalists inside the ensemble no longer apply. Each musician is fully engaged in shaping and developing the music. “If you start improvising then something else happens, just as one thought will take you to another, without the connections being obvious.” Yannatou has said. “This time the selection of material seemed to emphasize strongly rhythmic elements and ‘strange’ melodies, and I think this encouraged the flow of improvisational ideas.” (“Za lioubih maimo tri momi” from Pirin Macedonia is immediately impressive in this aspect).

On “Sumiglia”, songs were effectively portraits; here the themes are many - love songs, religious songs, philosophical meditations, lullabies, songs of working the land, songs of leaving and returning -all bringing forth evocative playing. “Ah, Marouli” is from the Greek island of Calymnos, and is a traditional song of sponge-divers. “Addio amore” is an olive-harvester’s song, “Omar hashem leyakoyv” a Yiddish song from the Ashkenazic tradition, probably from the 16th century. In addition to the arrangements of traditional material, there are two new compositions based on Greek sources - “O Yannis kai o drakos”, and “Perperouna” respectively a dragon-slaying song and a gentle call for rain. The first features percussionist Kostas Theodorou on second double-bass, the latter cross-references Burundi rhythm with Greek melody, and adds African kalimba to the arrangement.

“There were no limits imposed about where the music might come from,” Savina says. Much of the choice of material – intuitive rather than systematic or conceptual- was made by sifting through hundreds of folk tunes, from all over the world, archived by nay player Harris Lambrakis, who is also a musicologist. “I was simply being open to anything that held my attention.” Her choices spurred Kostas Vomvolos to find ways to arrange the material that would fully engage the playing capacity of all members of Primavera en Salonico. “Sumiglia”, she reflects, was in some ways a record of restraint, of holding back, of putting the focus on the songs’ narratives. “Songs of An Other”, by contrast, has more to do with letting go, opening up, flying... “On the last recording we were asking ourselves: What are these songs about? This time around we were simply saying: Let’s play!”

Born in Athens, Yannatou studied at the National Conservatory. While still a student she sang for Greek National Radio 3, under the direction of composer Manos Hadjidakis. In the ensuing years she explored a range of options from renaissance and baroque music to contemporary composition as well as Greek “entechno” art songs. In the early 90s she experimented with free improvisation, with both Greek and international collaborators and began to work also with a circle of Thessaloniki-based musicians who formed the band Primavera en Salonico for her recording of Sephardic folk songs from the region. The group is now in its 15th year, its progress informed by its members’ range of activities:

Kostas Vomvolos, the band’s principal arranger, is a resourceful accordionist, and an innovative exponent of the qanun (or psaltery). Well known in Greece as a writer of theatre music he has scored more than fifty plays and is, furthermore, an authority on the reconstruction of ancient music.

Oud and guitar player Yannis Alexandris worked for the State Theatre of Northern Greece in the 1960s, originally as a member of the choir, and also played Greek music as a guitarist in the taverns. From 1973 he lived in Sweden for ten years, a period in which he intensified his studies of Greek traditional music. A member of the Tombourlika ensemble, whose vast repertoire of Rembetika songs is legendary, Yannis is also highly regarded as an instrument builder, and has for thirty years made bouzoukis, baglamas, lutes, lyras and more.

Violinist Kyriakos Gouventas recently co-founded the folk orchestra Estudiantina. He has worked with many of the most skilled traditional singers and musicians in Greece and played also with orchestras and chamber ensembles.

Bassist Michalis Siganidis is also a poet and songwriter. In the late 1970s he belonged, along with Floros Floridis and Sakis Papadimitriou to the first wave of Greek players addressing free improvisation. He has also written music for stage and screen.

Kostas Theodorou who plays percussion in Primavera en Salonico is a self-taught musician whose history also includes periods as a guitarist and bassist. He has worked with Bulgarian kaval player Theodossij Spassov, combines Greek rhythms with those of the neighbouring lands and once described himself as ‘an avant-garde folk musician’.

Harris Lambrakis, much in demand as a nay player on the traditional circuit, also plays with jazz and contemporary music groups. He is currently researching urban traditional music in Greece at the musicology department of the University of Athens.

The press on “Sumiglia”

…Ses choix esthétiques sont incontestablement marqués par les mélismes de l’Orient, mais aussi par la liberté de pensée acquise par le chant contemporain depuis Berio et Cathy Berberian, et de façon plus permanente par la prise d’initiative du jazz. Une compétence qu’elle partage avec ses musiciens. … La production de Manfred Eicher répond très pertinemment aux besoins de ce folklore intérieur pour s’épanouir.
Franck Bergerot, Le Monde de la Musique (Choc du mois)

Dark-toned but ambrosial, highly disciplined yet seemingly bursting with a soul of pure flame, the rather staggering Athens-born singer Savina Yannatou is a virtuosic chameleon adept at an extensive range of vocal traditions (and languages) from the Mediterranean region – not just interpreting but leaping off from these old folk musics with a daring, exploratory technique and far-flung tonal scope … Yannatou really lets the blood out of these songs, brazenly improvising on them, as if called by some inner primal force.
John Payne, L.A. Weekly

Yannatou’s choice of material takes in the whole of the Mediterranean from Spain to Albania and Yannatou delivers the emotion in each song as if it were her own. Her musicians swing like a jazz group, dance like a folk ensemble and have the soul of a blues band and this is a lovely record.
Duncan Heining, Jazzwise

Yannatou is emerging as one of the most inventive interpreters of traditional music from around the world. While most of her musical contemporaries in Greece and the Mediterranean have gone “Eurovision” (something of an “American Idol” equivalent), Yannatou has continued to make music her way, blending global folk history and jazz-like modern improvisation.
Joanna Kakissis, Star Ledger