The new old sound of Greek folk rock

Into the forest

In a beautiful green setting just a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of Athens, a unique get together of different people, sounds, and musical styles took place around mid-August in the 4th edition of the Arvanitsa Music Forest Festival.

Nestled inside a lush landscape, the stage was surrounded by tall green firs, its powerful projectors and strong lights bringing forth a symbolism that run throughout the festival: the convergence of old and new, traditional and modern, urban and rural.

P1060038

The stage lights vanishing into the night sky above the forest in Arvanitsa

The music of uprooting

Intensified and increasingly relevant due to the ongoing socio-economic crisis in Greece, the theme of emigration and resettling was recurrent in the performances of several artists who treated it both as a vehicle for artistic expression and socio-political commentary.

A case in point is Hamayun and Wakar by Greek songwriter Thanassis Papakonstantinou. The song relates the tragic story of Hamayun Anwar and Wakar Ahmed, two young men from Pakistan who lost their lives in 2012 while trying to save an elderly Greek couple that was trapped on rail tracks.

Another highlight included the electrifying renditions of popular folk tunes by Villagers of Ioannina City (aka VIC), a Greek band that brings together folk influences with post, stoner and psychedelic rock elements. Songs such as Jiannim or Chalasia combine skilfully the traditional form and emotional undertones of Greek folk song with a contemporary sound and orchestration, thus reaching out to audiences that would otherwise have little or no interest in folk music.

Old folk, new folks

The amplified sound of clarinets, lutes and lyres next to resounding guitars, electric bass and thundering drumming. Familiar lyrics and popular tunes sung again in different ways, performed through different mediums, and heard again through different ears.

This happens when city folks gather in the forest to play, listen and sing to the the new old sound of Greek folk rock music.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Concerts

Vivaldi, jazz and the Greek summer

It is common to associate certain songs, albums or artists with the occasion and the place where we first listened to them. This is especially true when the first hearing is linked to a place of exceptional beauty, which stays forever intertwined with the tune/artist in question.

I have such a memory from some distant summer holidays in the small island of Elafonisos, just off the Southern coast of Peloponnese in Greece. Known for its sandy beaches and blue-green waters, Elafonisos is an ideal place to wind down and tune in your body and soul with the beautiful, serene scenery.

Elafonisos, Greece

Every day we would walk up to a small beach bar for a snack, casual talk and enjoy the splendid surroundings. To top it all off, there was almost always some intriguing music coming from the bar’s speakers that seemed to blend perfectly with the surrounding space.

One time, while I was enjoying the most delicious karydópita (pecan pie) with fresh vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted, I decided to walk up and ask the bartender/cook/DJ what was the tune we were listening to.

I could tell it was some sort of jazz adaptation of Vivaldi, but I had never heard something like it before. He wrote down the name of the artist on a piece of paper and handed over to me (back then there was no mobile phones, let alone Wi-Fi). The note read Jacques Loussier”.

That’s how I was introduced to the wonderful world of the Jacques Loussier Trio and their magnificent renditions of classical music (from Bach and Vivaldi to Chopin and Debussy).

To this day, when I listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ played by Loussier’s jazzy piano trio, my mind flies instantly toward the Greek summer – the most beautiful season of all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Various

Godspeed You! Black Emperor & Xylouris White in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

It was one of those gigs where everything sounded just right. Already from the opening act, the -crowded- main hall of Amsterdam’s Paradiso was filled with music of both otherworldly beauty and great intensity.

The dynamic duo Xylouris White (consisting of Cretan lute player and singer Giorgos Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White) set the tone for the rest of the evening. An exemplary blend where tradition meets innovative forms and improvisational mood, the duo’s musical explorations took the audience on a journey from the Greek island of Crete all the way to Australia and New York.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A real master of his instrument, Giorgos Xylouris comes from a celebrated musical family (his father is the Cretan singer and lyra player Psarantonis, and his late uncle was the legendary singer Nikos Xylouris). His virtuosity combined with White’s exceptional skill in complementing and conversing with his partner’s playing resulted in a technically demanding performance delivered with passion and rigor.

Following Xylouris White, the Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage to perform songs from their latest album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Using film loop projections to accompany their performance (as is customary in their live shows), the band created a unique atmosphere and went on to give a truly memorable show.

As is often the case when post-rock is at its best (think of Moqwai or Sigur Rós), the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor invites the listener to partake both mentally and physically in the live experience. This is made possible by the wide range of dynamics and extensive build-ups that create the necessary space for this kind of engagement, leading to powerful peaks and climaxes.

It is perhaps this quality of total absorption that lies in the heart of this music’s beauty and mystery – leading to a sense of deep satisfaction for both mind and ears.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Concerts

Thanasis Papakonstantinou in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

Who’s that again?

Born in 1959, Thanasis Papakonstantinou slowly emerged in the Greek music scene around the early 1990s. Influenced by folk and world music, he progressively developed his own style incorporating jazz, rock and electronic elements. This fusion has led to the creation of a unique and highly distinctive sound, establishing him as one of today’s most original Greek songwriters.

The prophet’s (hoarse) voice

The release of the album Vrachnos Profitis (‘Hoarse Prophet’) in 2000 was a turning point for Papakonstantinou’s career as a songwriter. Throughout the following years he turned increasingly experimental with regards to the production and orchestration of his records. Meanwhile, collaborating with major Greek musicians and singers has enabled him to enrich his sound and complement his own hoarse voice and limited vocal range.

His efforts have yielded some truly remarkable results, as testified by the aesthetic and artistic merits of albums like Agrypnia (‘Vigil’, 2002), O elachistos eaftos (‘The Minimal Self’, 2011), or his latest release Prosklisi se Deipno Kianiou (‘Invitation to Cyanide Dinner’, 2014).

Vigil in Amsterdam

Next to his low profile, modest media presence, and unpretentious nature, Thanasis is characterized by his relaxed stage presence and direct communication with his audience during his live performances.

This was also the case during his recent gig at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, which went on to last for more than 2 hours after an atmospheric opening with the highly evocative Agrypnia.

Shortly after the gig was over, Thanasis came down from the stage and performed a song by Greek composer Markos Vamvakaris (known as the “patriarch of the rebetiko”) to a small group of people that gathered around him to listen.

It was an intimate closing to a long evening full of enthusiasm, emotion and great music.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2 Comments

Filed under Concerts

How a -great- record taught me an important life lesson

I first listened to it some years ago, not exactly sure when or where anymore. But I fell in love with it instantly, from the first hearing. I knew immediately that this was a record I could listen to again and again, without ever getting tired of it.

And so it happened. To this day, Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert remains one my favorite albums; not just as far as jazz is concerned, but from any music genre. 

What I didn’t know until recently is the fascinating story behind the making of this remarkable record.

Jarrett had originally requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for his performance at Cologne’s Opera House. However, when he arrived at the venue (tired from not sleeping well in several nights and in pain from back problems), he was in for a surprise: due to some confusion by the opera house staff a different, much smaller baby grand piano was waiting for him instead.

Although the instrument was in quite poor condition (thin in the upper registers, weak in the bass register, the pedals not working properly), Jarrett eventually decided to go on with the concert. And in spite -or rather, because- of the adverse circumstances, he delivered an inspiring performance that later went on to become the best selling piano album of all times.

Köln was different because there was just so many negative things in a row”

Keith Jarrett

As producer Manfred Eicher, who recorded the performance, has commented on Jarrett’s magnificent playing: “Probably he played it the way it sounds now because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the instrument, he found another way to get the most out of it.”

I think the way Jarrett managed to create something so beautiful under such unlikely circumstances can be seen as a valuable lesson – not just for pianists, jazz musicians or improvisers but for all of us. No matter how hard or unfavorable the conditions, one can always manage to make the best out of a situation. And, furthermore, even excel exactly because of the obstacles presented to him or her.

Something to ponder on next time you happen to listen to Jarrett’s inspired and seemingly effortless improvisation…

1 Comment

Filed under Various

From Iceland with love

While Kraftwerk were hitting up Paradiso for the opening night of of their epic 8-gig retrospective, a more humble event was taking place at Tolhuistuin, the vibrant new venue for arts and culture located in Amsterdam North, just opposite the city’s imposing railway station.

The line-up consisted of two lesser-known bands from Iceland, which has proved to be a consistently good source for creative new artists in constant search of diverse soundscapes.

Not just a pretty face

In 2011 Icelandic songwriter Sóley released We Sink, her first full length album, followed by Krómantík in 2014, which featured solely piano music. Having been noted for their “dark surrealism”, Sóley’s songs are characterized by strangely beautiful melodic lines and her subtle, delicate singing.

Her slight clumsiness/nervousness on stage only made her performance more attractive (at some point she asked the audience ”are you from Amsterdam?”), while her dream-like compositions (which included tunes from We Sink but also several new songs) quickly captivated the crowd and created the perfect setting for the act that was about to follow.

Low profile, high standards

Low Roar came to being after singer-songwriter Ryan Karazija moved from California to Reykjavík following the break-up of his old band Audrye Sessions. In Iceland, he recorded Low Roar’s self-titled debut album, which was followed by 0 (2014), a truly magnificent record that combines elegantly Karazija’s folk-style guitar playing and ethereal vocal lines with electronic loops and post-rock elements.

Low Roar’s silent dynamism and low profile combined with their focused, dedicated playing made for a great performance at Tolhuistuin; taking the music to various directions from reserved lyricism and atmospheric ballads to electronic and dance breaks, Low Roar offered the crowd a live show of the highest level.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Album reviews, Concerts

The ceaseless roar of a rock legend

The return of the rock god

Out of all the charismatic frontmen who rose to fame during hard rock’s golden age, Robert Plant stands out as one of the most significant and influential figures. His tenure as Led Zeppelin’s lead singer and lyricist earned him near-legendary status, while his unique singing style had a tremendous impact upon subsequent generations of rock musicians and vocalists. Besides, it was largely Plant’s looks, flamboyant appearance and powerful stage presence that gave birth to the “rock god” archetype.

Robert-Plant

Robert Plant in the 70s

But even more remarkable than Plant’s mythical stage persona has been his enduring desire to expand his musical horizons and explore new ways of expression. Throughout his solo career, Plant has experimented and recorded with several different bands (e.g. Priory of Brion, Strange Sensation, Band of Joy), while also collaborating with musicians from diverse backgrounds such as Irish folk songwriter Moya Brennan and American country singer Alison Krauss.

A sensational lullaby

Plant’s latest album Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar is not so much a solo effort as a group project with his new band The Sensational Space Shifters. In some ways, it represents a recap of his musical wanderlust over the years, bringing together Plant’s eclectic influences ranging from bluegrass and Depression-era blues to Celtic and Malian music.

Echoes of Led Zeppelin can be heard throughout the album, from the playful allusion to the riff of Nobody’s Fault but Mine in Little Maggie (performed on the one-stringed African instrument riti with its characteristic high-pitch sound) to Pocketful of Golden, which shares its opening line with Thank You (the very first Led Zeppelin song Plant wrote lyrics for). Other album highlights include Rainbow with its driving rhythm and Embrace Another Fall, where guest vocalist Julie Murphy gives a beautiful treatment of the ancient Welsh song Marwnad yr Ehedydd.

With this exciting and inspired new record, Robert Plant proves once again he’s got far more to offer than worn-out, unoriginal repetitions brimming with nostalgia. The image of the long-haired, bare-chested, blond rock god may persist, but those who have been following Plant in his sensational post-Zep shift through time and space will no doubt find Lullaby to be a truly delightful stop in this long and unpredictable journey.

Leave a comment

Filed under Album reviews