The distinctive cry of Sokratis Sinopoulos’ lyra has previously been heard on ECM recordings of Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri (Athens Concert) and Eleni Karaindrou (Trojan Women, The Weeping Meadow, Elegy of the Uprooting, Medea). Sokratis has played a key role in the revival of interest in the lyra in Greece, both in traditional music contexts and in the shaping of new music. To see him in concert for the first time is to marvel at the range of emotion and expression conveyed through the lyra and the power of the sound projected from this small, bowed instrument.
Born in Athens in 1974, Sokratis Sinopoulos studied classical guitar, Byzantine music and folk song before taking up the lyra at age 14. Within a year he was playing with mentor Ross Daly’s group, and over the last two decades has collaborated with composers, musicians and singers from Greece and abroad. Along the way he has found his own voice as a creative musician. “I play an instrument associated with a specific tradition and live in a place where the tradition is really strong. There are many advantages to a strong tradition. It’s like having a time machine, almost, which can take you back to the medieval era or on journeys through the history of Greece, the Balkans, many countries. And I have loved all the years I have spent supporting the traditions, including the folk music traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean. But recently something else has been developing, bringing together all of my background with something, let’s say, ‘universal’.”
An encounter with pianist Yann Keerim (born Yannis Kirimkiridis in 1979 in Ionnina), a similarly open-minded musician, led to the founding of the Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet in 2011: “With Yannis, I felt there was a connection that was about more than the instruments we played. It was more of a personal connection, and similar sensibilities.”
Eight Winds, the debut album of the quartet and Sokratis’s leader debut for ECM, was produced by Manfred Eicher at Sierra Studios in Athens in April 2014. The reflective compositions and yearning ballads on the album cede the central melodic role to the lyra, sensitively supported by the piano of Yann Keerim and the subtle bass and drums of Dimitris Tsekouras and Dimitris Emmanuel. But there is more happening here than a cross-referencing of folk instrument and jazz trio.
“We’re not ‘fusing’ anything,” Sinopolous cautions. “Each of us has acquired and internalized a lot of knowledge and experience of different styles, before approaching the others. The spirit of the recording session, and also with Manfred Eicher’s direction as producer, was very free. In my one recommendation to the other players, the night before the session, I said: ‘Especially in the solos, if you find yourself playing something that could be easily described as ‘jazz’ or ‘folk’ or ‘classical’, then try and avoid it. Without censoring ourselves, let’s find instead the common roots of our improvising’.” One unifying factor is “the basic modality, which we all relate to, because of our backgrounds.” For Sokratis, the “eight winds” of the title could be construed as the musical streams which influence and swirl around the project. “It can be great to follow such winds, or to fly with them, but in this album we did not allow them to disorient us from our musical centre. And if I had to describe a place where we feel at home and try to stand in stillness and just feel the eight winds passing by, that place would be the ‘Aegean Sea’ [see track 5], in which I try to blend in some ancient sounds from the islands. And by the way, the lyra used to be – indeed it still is – one of the characteristic instruments of the Aegean Islands.”
The lyra is popular in Greece in several regions today, “but as a folk instrument it is always playing folk dance music. And for the musicians – especially those of the older generation – no matter how skilled they are, it hasn’t been easy for them to present their music outside its specific social context. But this is changing now, as a new generation searches for new voices for old instruments.”
In terms of his own development, Sokratis says he has learned from all the musical contexts he has found himself in over the years, but amongst recent experiences counts the work with Charles Lloyd as particularly significant. “The chance to work with Charles Lloyd arrived at a time when I felt I’d heard almost everything. I can’t describe how magical it was to be on stage with Charles and the incredible musicians of his quartet, night after night. The feeling of freedom in the music was really important to me, and it was an experience that gave me new ideas for the musical form of Eight Winds.”
In addition to his playing activities Sokratis Sinopoulos has been involved in research and production for the Domnia Samiou Greek Folk Music Association, has worked with the Centre for Asia Minor Studies on diverse projects, and is a lecturer in the Department of Music Science and Art at the Macedonia University of Thessaloniki.
Yann Keerim began playing piano at the age of four and received his diploma in classical music at the age of 16. His compositions have been featured in numerous films and productions. As pianist he has performed with jazz and ‘world music’ artists including Ara Dinkjian, Manos Achalinotopoulos, and Haig Yazdjian.
Dimitris Tsekouras (born 1985 in Athens) comes from a musical family. He played piano, violin, guitar and drums before settling on the bass, which he studied at the Conservatory of Athens.
Dimitris Emmanuel graduated from the Music High School of Pallini, specialized in Greek traditional percussion and Latin percussion. He won the Greek Young Artist Award in 1997 and since then has worked with many group of traditional Greek music and dance companies.