Savina Yannatou made her ECM debut with the live album “Terra Nostra”. Released early in 2003, it alerted the world’s press to the work of this exceptional Greek singer and her maverick band of free-thinking musicians, Primavera en Salonico. They play the traditional musics of the world in a spirited and liberated manner, and with a wide perspective that is far from “traditional”.
Now “Sumiglia”, Yannatou’s first ECM studio album and her first creative collaboration with producer Manfred Eicher, takes the music to another level. Pooling songs from Greece, Corsica, Italy, Sicily, Galicia, Palestine, Albania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Moldavia and the Ukraine, “Sumiglia” both celebrates the differences between the traditions and the common ground they share. The musicians reveal a deep feeling for the melodies they explore, treat them with great respect, and when the music seems to demand it, follow their implications until increasingly free improvisation becomes an inevitability.
“Sumiglia” is also a vocal, and linguistic, tour-de-force. Savina, possessed of a voice that always seems a naturally expressive instrument, nevertheless has the ability to move in and out of roles and characters (and dialects and idioms) with an actress’s or opera singer’s facility: she becomes the protagonists of her songs – the orphaned child of “Porondos viz partjan”, the suffering lover of “Sta kala lu serenu”, the war-weary narrator of “Terra can nun senti”, the Greek bride of “Evga mana mou”… “Yannatou is a chameleon,” marvelled writer John Slavin in Australian magazine, The Age, “playful, sexy and richly endowed with musical intelligence. An astonishing artist.”
Drawing on the open-ended arrangements of Kostas Vomvolos, the band is able to match Yannatou’s mercurial changes of mood. “Sumiglia” also gives the fullest account yet of the group’s instrumental range.
As one Greek critic wrote, “Savina Yannatou and the musicians of Primavera en Salonico are rope-dancers on the chord which connects the modal music of the East with the equivalent music of Western Europe, music of the Middle Ages and the popular polyphonies of the Mediterranean. Beginning from the melismatic riches of the Eastern Maqam and its charmingly irregular rhythms they explore the territory of collective free improvisation, meeting there modern jazz.” In fact, several of the players have backgrounds in jazz.
Savina Yannatou was born in Athens where she studied at the National Conservatory and Spiros Sakkas’s Workshop of Vocal Art in Athens. On a scholarship from the Mousigetis Foundation, she attended England’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
An early collaboration with composer Manos Hadjidakis led to further adventures with modern music; she also has experience of baroque and renaissance performance styles. In the early 1990s she began experimenting with free improvisation, eventually forming a cooperative trio with German bassist Peter Kowald and Greek clarinettist/saxophonist Floros Floridis. Since 1993 Yannatou has performed with Primavera en Salonico, the collective of Thessaloniki-based musicians originally assembled for a project that collected Sephardic folk songs. A number of recordings for Lyra (a label that is also ECM’s Greek distributor) followed. Savina Yannatou has also composed music for theatre, video art and dance, and has contributed to more than 20 albums released in her homeland since 1979.
Between them the members of Primavera en Salonico have enormous musical experience, in genres from traditional music to modern composition via jazz and improvisation. Violinist Kyriakos Gouventas, for instance, has played with many of the great folk singers of Greece and is a member of Thessaloniki’s Ensemble of Traditional Music. His musicianship is in great demand all over Greece and he plays with all the leading Greek singers at countless occasions. Oud man Yannis Alexandris is highly respected as both an instrumentalist and a builder of traditional instruments, including bouzoukis, baglamas, lutes, tambouras etc. Bassist Michaelis Siganidis has been active in the Greek jazz/improvised scene, working with Sakis Papadimitriou and others; he also has a reputation as a poet and songwriter. Ney player Haris Lambrakis, at 28 the band’s youngest member, plays with both traditional and contemporary ensembles. Percussionist Kostas Theodorou is a multi-instrumentalist who began his career as a bassist. He has worked with Bulgarian kaval player Theodossij Spassov, combines Greek rhythms with those of the neighbouring lands, and describes himself as an “avant-garde folk musician.”
Marshalling all these talents is Primavera’s musical director, Kostos Vomvolos. Vomvolos is well-known in Greece as a writer of theatre music and is also an arresting instrumentalist, on both the accordion and the qanun (or psaltery) which he plays in inventive, idiosyncratic manner.
Reactions to Terra Nostra:
“The fabulous Greek vocalist and her ensemble take the music of dozens of European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries as their starting point, then stretch them out with jazz-like elasticity. Her ECM album ‘Terra Nostra’ radiates gravitas and a old-European feeling of living history.” – Richard Gehr, Village Voice
“A Greek goddess on a mission…Savina Yannatou is an amazingly versatile singer….The power of the performance lies in the cool delivery of an astonishingly pure and endlessly adaptable voice”- Verity Sharp, BBC Music Magazine
“Yannatou’s vocals are impeccable throughout, her articulation clear, the ornamentation precise, the voice, gutsy without being strained. Primavera en Salonico copes gloriously with the demands of the styles on offer…I was especially impressed with the violin playing of Kyriakos Gouventas, but there is not a soloist who is less than excellent.” Chris Williams, Folk Roots
“The Ensemble’s mission is to modernize traditional forms and provide opportunities for its members to express themselves free of the restraints of these revered and culturally significant styles. The results are heady indeed, and vocalist Yannatou is a revelation.” – Mark Holston, Jazziz
“An astounding voice, augmented by a prodigious level of control and a fine sense of musicality… ‘Terra Nostra’ is a beautiful piece of work, but that isn’t what makes it worth listening to. It’s Yannatou and her musicians’ willingness to stretch, to investigate the possibilities of the music they’ve chosen to explore , and the confidence that the audience will be right there with them.” Genevieve Williams, Dirty Linen
“Yannatou’s versatility is little short of astonishing as she adapts her voice – sweet and childlike in some cases, harsh and masculine in others – to songs from Greece, Sardinia, the Hebrides, the Caribbean, Sephardic Spain and beyond. A stunning album”. Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times
“Yannatou’s voice has many colours – it’s a beautifully pure instrument able to jump from Greece to Scotland in the space of a song...” Peter Bacon, Birmingham Post
A special “Sumiglia” release concert will take place in Athens on March 23. Savina Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico tour the United States in March and central Europe in May/June. More details at www.ecmrecords.com
CD package includes 28 page booklet with English translations of song texts, and session photos.