Fiery fingerwork: Django Reinhardt, Tony Iommi and the accidents that revolutionized guitar playing

The house is on fire (Django’s wagon accident)

The second night of November 1928 was a fateful one for Django Reinhardt, then a promising 18-year-old Romani guitarist who had recently made his first recordings. As he was going to bed with Florine “Bella” Mayer, a fellow Romani girl he had recently married, the wagon the couple shared went up in flames as a candle was knocked over by accident. They both escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns and had his right leg severely damaged.

Django
Reinhardt’s left hand

More importantly for his music, however, Reinhardt’s left-hand ring and pinky fingers had been badly burned: he was told he would not be able to play the guitar again. Through perseverance and meticulous practice, however, he did something even more incredible: by developing a unique technique focused on his left index and middle fingers (using the two injured fingers only for playing chords), he managed to achieve a level of technical and musical mastery that remains unparalleled and awe-inspiring to this day.

After his recovery, Reinhardt started to develop an interest in jazz and it was his meeting and collaboration with violinist Stéphane Grappelli that would define his musical career. Together they formed the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France, the foremost European jazz group at the time, and would go on to make several classic recordings that continue to inspire music enthusiasts, while setting the standard for jazz guitar playing ever since.

Django Reinhardt and the Quintet performing “J’Attendrai” in 1938 (Reinhardt’s only surviving film performance with sound)

Apart from its cataclysmic impact on the subsequent evolution of jazz guitar, Reinhardt’s accident would also have far-reaching consequences for the emergence of heavy metal, albeit in a less obvious way…

Heavy -sheet- metal (Tony’s factory accident)

Tony Iommi, a 17-year-old guitarist form Birmingham, was about to quit his job at a sheet metal factory and go play in Germany with his first band The Birds And Bees. His last day at work, though, would prove to be fateful: Iommi got injured, losing the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be playing guitar again.

It was finding out about Reinhardt’s own accident and comeback that gave Iommi (who played left-handed) the courage to continue playing and make music. He went on to adjust his guitar strings and amp settings, thus creating a unique sound that would give birth to a whole new music genre.

Tony Iommi’s right hand with prosthetic tips added on two fingers

Just like Reinhardt, it was his disability that made Iommi explore new ways of expression and become more inventive. As he put it: “Of course losing my fingertips was devastating but, in hindsight, it created something: it made me invent a new sound and a different style of playing.”

Guitarist Tony Iommi talks about how he almost lost his ability to play guitar after a work accident

As the examples of Django Reinhardt and Tony Iommi so tellingly illustrate, limitations and even misfortunes can be a powerful driving force and boost creativity, as long as there is determination and inspiration. It is -literally- though fire and flames, after all, that guitar playing has been transformed from the era of swing to that of heavy metal.

Soundtrack to a better reality: Stray Asteroids by Vinyl Suicide

Based in Athens, Vinyl Suicide have been part of the indie Greek pop/rock scene for several years now. In  2015 they released their debut album Homeward Bound, which featured tracks such as Pictures of You and 6.40 Α.Μ. (On Lycabettus), attracting popular and critical attention.

Following an extensive period of working on new material, experimenting and performing, the band recently released their second album titled Stray Asteroids. Available both digitally and on 12-inch vinyl, the album was produced, mixed and engineered by Vasilis Nissopoulos [Whereswilder, Daphne and the Fuzz] and synths were recorded by seasoned keyboardist and session musician Orestis Benekas [The Cave Children, Σtella, Pavlos Pavlidis & B-Movies].

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The album opener Asteroids immediately sets the overall tone and mood: well-polished sound and melodic tunes accentuated skillfully by Dimitra Sideri’s ethereal vocals and Ted Kapa’s effect-heavy guitars, supported by a tight rhythm section (Dimitris Patronas – bass, Dimitris Doumouliakas – drums, persussion) and given an atmospheric touch by Orestis Benekas’s synths and keys.

The album explores various themes ranging from youthful eroticism (Mad Love, Young Hearts) to desire and heartbreak (Pixel Soul), while occasionally drifting towards angst and darker thoughts (My Youth, Run). After all, this is “suicide pop” to quote the band’s name and self-description.

What prevails, though, is a mood of uplifting energy combined with a certain melancholy that owes much to 80s aesthetics and sound. Moreover, there is a sense of quiet expectation and looking forward, encapsulated beautifully in the album’s closing track (Fireflies):

Sun carves my face, summer ends / Fireflies and seashells, rides with friends / The air is filled with love, the night is near / Boys count to ten and disappear

As the band themselves put it, their songs “compile the soundtrack of the reality we prefer to live in.” Indeed, Stray Asteroids is an album filled with music and words that invite us to imagine and experience a reality worth living.

More info: Official website · Facebook Page

Music of splendid isolation

Depending on external conditions, as well as one’s state of mind, listening to music can be a very intimate, self-reflective process. Some pieces of music, partly due to their esoteric nature, work especially well when experienced in private and attentively, with as little distraction as possible.

Below is a list of such works that are very dear to me personally, works I often turn to when seeking comfort and consolation – things particularly precious in days of self-isolation and “social distancing”…

Federico Mompou – Música Callada (Silent Music)

Grandson of a bell maker, Catalan composer Federico Mompou was fond of imitating the meditative sound of bells, something that can be heard in his masterful Musica Callada, a collection of 28 miniature pieces for piano based on the mystical poetry of Saint John of the Cross. Mompou’s magnum opus, this enigmatic work is reminiscent of Eric Satie in its crystalline simplicity and serene beauty.

Max Richter – The Blue Notebooks

Featuring readings from Kafka’s fragmented The Blue Octavo Notebooks and recorded in the aftermath of the protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, The Blue Notebooks was described by Richter as “a protest album” and a “meditation on violence”. A work fragile yet powerful and moving, it invites to confront our innermost feelings, doubts, and thoughts.

Arvo Pärt – Spiegel im Spiegel

A magnificent example of Pärt’s uniquely evocative style, Spiegel im Spiegel, like much of his music, seems somehow to make time stand still, offering us a glimpse of the eternal.

George Gurdjieff – Sacred Hymns

Written by Greek-Armenian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff in collaboration with Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, this genuinely spiritual music is better understood as part of Gurdjieff’s greater philosophical system, known as the Fourth Way or “The Work”. According to Gurdjieff’s teachings, musical structures parallel cosmic structures, music being thus able to to significantly affect and benefit individuals.

Keith Jarrett – The Köln and Vienna Concerts

Both of Jarrett’s great recitals (called simply The Köln Concert and Vienna Concert) are wonderful examples of his masterful improvisational skills. Moreover, one gets the impression that during these intriguing performances Jarrett is completely surrendered to the music, inviting us to follow him in his daring excursions as active listeners.  As Jarrett himself (who has also made an excellent recording of Gurdjieff’s music) has claimed, his goal when improvising is to “wake up” and keep listeners “alert”.

“There’s no borders”: A chat with Syrian-Armenian singer Lena Chamamyan

One of today’s foremost female singer-songwriters, Lena Chamamyan is in many ways a true embodiment of diversity. And that’s no accident: born in Damascus to a family with Armenian roots, Lena grew up in a house listening to Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong (her father was a trumpet and saxophone player), along with Armenian folk tunes and oriental Arab music – her grandmother wanted her to sing like Asmahan.

Having studied music and classical singing, Lena has since experimented with various styles and genres, expanding her musical vocabulary and incorporating various different influences into her songwriting and performing. Currently based in Paris, she writes and produces her own music, has already released 4 solo albums, and is busy touring, performing and recording new songs.

It was on a summer afternoon in Paris that my friend Nikos met with Lena and asked her a few questions in order to share her responses with the readers of this blog. Here’s what she told us…

Constantly curious and eager to further develop artistically, Lena enjoys listening to various different musical styles including fado, flamenco, as well as contemporary Sufi and Indian classical music (she has a soft spot for Dulce Pontes, and has cited the Shakti album with John McLaughlin as a personal favorite).

A unique blend of jazz, traditional Eastern music, Armenian folk and Western harmonies, Lena’s music has an ethereal quality colored by her distinctive, soulful voice. It is characterized by an air of melancholy and heartfelt compassion, and in a way reflects her own generous spirit and warm personality, as well as her passion for creativity and communication.

Lena Chamamyan / Photo: Nikos Ziogas

For Lena, the power of music lies in the chance it offers us to create something new every day, and also transcend language or physical barriers. “There’s no borders”, she says, “we don’t need to understand the language in order to feel the music.”

She would also like to perform in Greece one day and meet the Syrians who are living there. In her own words: “I believe they feel lonely and they feel afraid – we all feel the same, it’s just that we are living in different places… I would really like us to be together, so that we feel a bit less lonely.”

In Memoriam: Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

A true hero and source of constant inspiration for generations of Greek musicians, Yiannis Spathas was one of the leading electric guitarists in Greece emerging in the late 1960s. Founding member of the legendary Socrates Drank the Conium, he was the driving force behind the band’s electrifying sound and a guitar virtuoso who managed to create a unique and original blend stemming from rock, blues, and traditional Greek music.

Born in 1950 in Paxos in the Ionian Islands, Spathas grew up in Piraeus, where he formed the band Persons (1966-1969) with Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Ilias Asvestopoulos. Together with Tourkogiorgis, they would soon after create Socrates, one of the the most emblematic Greek rock bands of the 1970s and early 1980s.

An early shot of Socrates Drank The Conium [left to right: Elias Boukouvalas, Antonis Tourkogiorgis, Yiannis Spathas]

As the lead guitarist of Socrates, Spathas developed an exceptional guitar technique and created a highly idiosyncratic style that brought together influences from artists like Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, John Mayall as well as traditional Greek music, which proved a deep and enduring influence on Spathas, both as performer and composer (according to Spathas, two of his greatest influences were Jimi Hendrix and Greek clarinet player Tassos Chalkias).

Spathas’s guitar playing in Mountains (from the celebrated album Phos, on which the band collaborated with Vangelis Papathanassiou) continues to serve as a testament to his masterful technique and profound musicality.

Following the break-up of Socrates, Spathas pursued a long and successful career as composer, arranger and session guitarist, collaborating with famous Greek artists such as Mikis Theodorakis, Vasilis Lekkas and Haris Alexiou. In 1999 he released the album Street Secrets, featuring several instrumental pieces where Spathas displays his virtuosity and compositional skills, as well as the excellent piece Half the Way with vocals by Haris Alexiou.

Spathas’s legacy as guitarist, arranger and composer remains varied and significant; his virtuoso guitar skills, iconic compositions such as Mountains and Starvation, as well as his overall contribution to modern Greek popular music are all facets of his immense talent and generous spirit.

Yiannis Spathas may not be with us, but there is little doubt his music and spirit will live on. The following words by Rainer Maria Rilke (written about the death of Socrates) may also serve as a fitting eulogy for the great musician:

His soul was thirsty for music. And with such premonition he put his lips, dry from the wind of words, on the cup of sounds. And perhaps the strength with which he faced death did not come from his past life and work,  but from that new anticipation; he thus marched towards death as if a new day was about to dawn with the feeling that would be the day of music.

Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)