Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs of Thessaloniki (ECM 2398)

Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion
Recorded February 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineers: Yiorgos Kariotis and Yannis Paxevanis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs of Thessaloniki marks the fourth appearance of Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her second-nature ensemble Primavera en Salonico. Characterized by the artists as “canvases for our imagination to create contemporary narratives on old myths,” the songs gathered here make for an appropriately multicultural portrait of Thessaloniki, a city where Orient and Occident have long blended at a crossroads of actions, peoples, and politics—a city, incidentally, Yannatou’s band calls home. Most importantly for the purposes documented here, it was a place where music could always be heard and can now be heard again.

When the first strains of “Apolitikion Agiou Dimitriou” caress your ear— strings, bellows, and lungs yielding Yannatou’s lullaby out of time— you may just feel at home as well. As a Greek hymn of St. Demetrius, patron saint of Thessaloniki, it paints a door deepest blue and welcomes us as we are. Ironically enough, and with exception of this hymn (and its instrumental variation which concludes the album), the Greek material on this album is tepid by comparison to its extra-cultural counterparts, even as it draws vital connective tissue between the same.

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Thessaloniki’s historical influx of Sephardic Jews (Thessaloniki was, in fact, once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”) is reflected in a formidable assortment. These songs especially reflect the arranging skills of Kostas Vomvolos, who also plays accordion and qanun throughout the recording. Yannatou’s chameleonic abilities have rarely sounded so organic as they do here. Whether in the childlike whispers of “A la scola del Allianza” or the qanun-accompanied “Una muchacha en Selanica,” she finds rawness of emotion in the simplest phrase and, by contrast, treads ever so lightly on danger—as in “La cantiga del fuego,” which tells of a great fire that swept the city in 1917.

More intense theatrics wait in the wings of “Dimo is Solum hodeshe,” a Bulgarian example that finds accordion, violin, and nay in artful concert. Two Turkish tunes, one as hymn and the other as folksong, give further context to Yannatou’s intrepid singing. In “Iptidadan yol sorarsan,” voice and nay practically become one, Yannatou sounding more like the flute, and vice versa, while halting rhythms and surreal beauties in the violin make “Çalin Davullari” a standout sojourn. There’s even an Irish folksong, “Salonika,” which dances, tongue-in-cheek, in the midst of war.

Yet few moments can approach the mastery of “Inchu Bingyole mdar?” and “Qele-qele,” both collected by the great Armenian composer Komitas. In both, the oud makes grander statements of purpose as it sweeps away the sand at Yannatou’s feet, allowing her to process into the distance, where, like the ancient Serbian tree of “Jelena Solun Devojko,” she stands until she dispels specters of violent pasts by virtue of her keening ways.

(To hear samples of Songs of Thessaloniki, click here.)

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Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs Of An Other (ECM 2057)

Songs Of An Other

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs Of An Other

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin, viola
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double-bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion, double-bass
Recorded October 2007 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Baxevanis
Edited and mixed by Manfred Eicher, Yannis Baxevanis, Kostas Vomvolos, and Savina Yannatou
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs Of An Other marks the third point of contact between Greek singer Savina Yannatou, along with Primavera en Salonico, and ECM. The program is more geographically varied than ever and emphasizes the interpretive prowess of its musicians. Much of that prowess breathes through Primavera’s superb control, for while the album boasts moments of sportive extroversion, it upholds the music first and foremost as a model for emancipation.

Indeed, Songs Of An Other, shows this collective at both its most animated and its most delicate, oftentimes within the same song. Both the slack-stringed “Za lioubih maimo tri momi,” which comes by way of Bulgarian Macedonia, and “Radile” (from Greece) run the line of straight-up folk and all-out jam. In the latter vein, two new tunes based on Greek sources add another line to the project’s résumé. “O Yannis kai O Drakos” is a dragon-slaying song replete with fanciful colorations, paroxysmal gasps, and subtly frenetic bassing. “Perperouna,” a call for rain, explores the gravelly pits of Yannatou’s voice, embraced by the windy brine of nay and kalimba, all moving in a Celtic knot of rhythm toward an adlibbed comet’s tail. Even the “Albanian lullabye” becomes a ritual of ululations and incantations, honing a mysterious and strangely accessible edge.

For much of the album, however, the musicians tread a delicate path, adapting to every dip in Yannatou’s tightrope along the way. From the dulcet “Smilj Smiljana” (Serbia) to the Italian olive-harvester’s song “Addio amore,” they emote lucidly. Combinations of flute, violin, and accordion cloud like ink in water in “Sassuni oror” (Armenia); dances take the night by the hand in “Dunie-au” (Kazakhstan); and the 16h-century Yiddish traditional “Omar hashem leyakoyv” is practically translucent in sentiment.

The greatest accomplishment of Songs is the fullness with which it romanticizes, as is clear in “Sareri hovin mermen” (Armenia). Given the “Eastern” feel, one might easily read into it an alluring sway. Likewise, “Ah, Marouli,” a Greek song about sponge-divers on the island of Kalymnos, sashays with seeming invitation. And yet, these arrangements are so emotionally (and physically) complete that they hardly need even these words to convey to the uninitiated listener the magic of their self-assurance. And that’s the thing: every step and element of this audible alchemy is as lucid as the light that illuminates the talents of these fine instrumentalists, Yannatou tracing them all the while as a wave might shape an Aegean breeze.

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Sumiglia (ECM 1903)

Sumiglia

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Sumiglia

Savina Yannatou voice
Primavera en Salonico
Kostas Vomvolos accordion, qanun, kalimba
Yannis Alexandris tamboura, oud, guitar
Michalis Siganidis double-bass
Kyriakos Gouventas violin, viola
Harris Lambrakis ney
Kostas Theodorou percussion
Recorded May 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Two years after the release of her ECM leader debut (although really a preexisting live recording repackaged as such), Savina Yannatou returns with her first album recorded under the label’s auspices at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. Sumiglia is at once a departure from and a deepening of the Greek singer’s extraordinary gifts, bound by nothing save her own imagination. Flanked as always by Primavera en Salonico, a band of dynamic expressive power, Yannatou graces another characteristically eclectic program of folk songs. Her voice is like a head of hair: thicker in some places, thinner in others, containing a wealth of reflections and colors, but always rooted and growing. Her wisdom is thus animated, blowing in winds from a thousand isles.

In spite of the studio comforts, one experiences Sumiglia as if a live recording, pulsing as it does with only thinly mitigated vibrancy. Like its predecessor, this album begins with a violin solo—a modest introduction that betrays nothing of the ensuing profusions. “Evga mana mou” thus opens with a nod to Yannatou’s homeland, a bridal song of farewell to family and friends. Adopting a tone that is delicate as a butterfly yet sharp as the bird that hunts it, the singing navigates a droning landscape with free surety. Other Greek songs include the tender, spring-like “Yanno Yannovitse” and the beautifully arranged “Ela ipne ke pare to,” which walks with a light kalimba step and a slight Arabic curl, further proving that sometimes the most bone-humming singing is that which is on the verge of fadeout. Within this frame, listeners are whisked away on a carefully sequenced journey. From the droning of Spain (“Muineira”) through the forests of Ukraine (“Ta chervona ta kalinonka”) to the twists of Albania (“Smarte moj”), there’s something for nearly everyone to grasp along the way.

Regardless of the roles she adopts, Yannatou remains painterly and self-aware. In the Moldavian song “Porondos viz partjan,” for one, she takes on the voice of an orphaned child, her evening wanderings matched step for step in arco starlight. In the Sicilian “Terra ca nun senti,” for another, she darts through mazes of war-weary angst. Other flybys of the Mediterranean yield the gravelly, fairytale affectations of “Orrio tto fengo” and the whimsical romanticism of “Sta kala lu serenu,” both from Italy. A stopover in Corsica in the album’s title track draws Yannatou’s voice like a thick rope through darkness, heaving histories and mysteries in equal measure. We feel that depth of mourning for times past.

The album’s delights take us inland and beyond. “Sedi Yanna,” a well-known Bulgarian folk song, receives an invigorating treatment, with just the exact amount of lilt and forward motion. It is also a perfect representation of the band’s clarity, which despite the density of its execution remains crystal clear. The lyrical fire of “Ganchum em yar ari,” from Armenia, warms us to “Tulbah.” This last is a Palestinian song that shows the Primavera at its chameleonic best. Whether riding the wave or swaying to the rhythm of calmer currents, the band adapts.

In addition to its many other virtues, Sumiglia is yet another feather in the cap of engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. Known, of course, for his spacious treatments of various jazz configurations, here he brings an immediacy that serves the music as much as it serves us. A bravura showing from every angle.

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Terra Nostra (ECM 1856)

Terra Nostra

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Terra Nostra

Savina Yannatou voice
Lamia Bedioui voice
Primavera en Salonico
Lefteris Ahgouridakis percussion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar, tamboura
Kostas Vomvolos kanoun, accordion, caliba, tamboura
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double-bass
Antonis Maratos percussion
Tassos Misyrlis cello
Recorded live in Athens, November 2001
Sound engineer: Vangelis Kalaras
Remixing and sound processing: Yannis Paxevanis, Studio “N,” Athens
Editing: Yannis Christodoulatos
Mastering: Chris Hatzistamou and Yannis Christodoulatos, Athens Mastering

Savina Yannatou is a wonder. As well versed in classical and jazz as in traditional and folk repertoires, the Greek singer turns every melody she handles into an alloy entirely her own. By the time this album was committed to digital in 2001, she had twenty years of acclaimed recordings, performances, and collaborations behind her—five with Primavera en Salonico. From the brilliance of what’s captured on this, her ECM debut (repackaged from its original appearance on Lyra), here’s hoping there will be twenty more.

Savina

To describe Yannatou’s relationship with Primavera is to describe the spark of flint and fire. The result is a conflagration that dances with innumerable colors. Some of those colors are easily identifiable as cultural, spanning as they do a variety of locative sources. Others are not so amenable to labeling, for they arise out of Yannatou’s effortless code switching and extended vocal techniques. Among those techniques, we are treated to everything from unadorned lullabies (as in “Adieu Paure Carnavas,” which comes from Provence) and swirling enchantments (“I’ve told you and I say again,” a Greek traditional from Asia Minor) to trance states of speech-song (the Caribbean traditional “Ah Mon Dié”) and cathartic ululations (“El Barquero,” by way of the seaside Spanish village of Asturia). In this vein we have also “Ballo sardo,” a Central Sardinian tune with whimsical touches glinting off an already compelling surface. In it, Yannatou sings, “Be careful, barons, to moderate your tyranny / otherwise I swear to you that you will lose your power,” effectively flagging the shattering power that one sweep of the lips can possess. The pen may be mightier than the sword, she seems to say, but the mouth outdoes them both.

The topography of Terra Nostra is thus varied as the cultures that populate it. The mournful violin that introduces “With the Moon I’m Walking,” a Greek traditional from Kalymnos Island and the concert’s prologue, shifts tectonically beneath Yannatou’s crosscurrents. It’s an appropriate starting point, a place of questioning and cosmos that sets up much of what will soon be answered. Highlights to follow include “Ivan Nadõnka Dúmashe” (Ivan Said to Donka), a song from the Bulgarian province of Eastern Rumelia. The region’s Turkish and Greek minorities can be heard in the kanoun, a Middle Eastern zither that shines starlight across a bed of lyrical regret. Nay virtuoso Harris Lambrakis—of an ensemble rich with instrumental talent—is a noteworthy facet of Primavera’s vibrant sound. His contributions to “A Fairy’s Love Song” (traditional from the Hebrides) and others draw threads of longing throughout.

Since the beginning of the Yannatou/Primavera collaboration, Sephardic music has been a vital part of the group’s programming, and in this performance we are treated to four examples. The upbeat and full sound of such refreshing, if also surreally realized, songs as “Jaco” and “Los Bilbilicos” lends uplift, while the strong percussive drive of “Tres Hermanicas Eran” looses a dream from slumber, made reality by the tactile force of the performance. In these songs we feel Yannatou at the center of crowded streets, where her immediate surroundings curl into a ball at her feet and purr to the tune of her descriptive powers.

Five songs feature co-vocalist Lamia Bedioui, who was born in Tunisia but has been based in Greece for nearly two decades. She brings a likeminded cross-culturalism to the group, beguiling in a handful of Arabic songs, such as the Meredith Monk-esque “Yiallah Tnem Rima” (Let Rim Sleep), a lullaby from Lebanon that carves brief passage through caves and sand with its largely vocal palette, and a rubato version of the undying “Wa Habibi.” She also heads the jangling fragmentations of the Italian Renaissance tune “Madonna de la Grazia” (Italian Renaissance) with equal parts tact and abandon.

What makes this record blossom is the interactive prowess of its musicians. Primavera stays true to its name, gathering all the power of the eponymous season to resurrect these songs from the depths of a long winter. Through clever instrumental pairings (of, for example, oud darting through jazzy bass lines) and juxtapositions of sacred and secular, Yannatou and her band prove that, once everything sprouts, it all becomes one homogeneous field, across which we are bid to run for love of living.

Alternate Terra
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