Author Archives: The Muser

“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.”

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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)

Bach, Pericles, and open culture: Yo-Yo Ma in Athens

The Bach Project

Taking on “Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division”, celebrated Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently launched The Bach Project, which involves live performances and actions in 36 selected locations across the globe.

In the musician’s own words: “I believe that culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – is an essential part of building a strong society. My hope is that together we can use Bach’s music to start a bigger conversation about the culture of us.”

Yo-Yo Ma in Kipseli

Prior to his big recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Yo-Yo Ma had a busy schedule including various stimulating discussions and actions around Athens. One of these included an impromptu performance at Kanari Square in the neighborhood of Kipseli, where the cello virtuoso shared the stage with local musicians and jammed with them, much to the surprise of an enthusiastic audience.

Ma went on about the influence of Africa on classical music and gave a short history lesson on the origins of the Sarabande, a dance form used widely by Baroque musicians (Bach wrote a Sarabande for each of his 6 cello suites). He then quoted from Thucydides’s famous Funeral Oration of Pericles (ca. 404 B.C.): “We throw open our city to the world and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing”.

After giving an intimate performance of Bach’s Sarabande from his Cello Suite No.3 in C Major, the great musician left the stage addressing the audience with a message of encouragement: “Stay open, stay courageous!”

 

Bach meets Epirus in Herodion

On the last day of June, during a warm summer evening, Ma performed all of Bach’s six cello suites in one go without intermission at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus under the imposing shadow of the Athenian Acropolis. For about 2,5 hours the crowd stood still listening to the sound of Bach’s timeless music delivered by Ma’s inspired, masterful playing.

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Accompanied at times by singing cicadas, Ma’s performance was moving and powerful. His playing was elegant and spirited, in tune with the surroundings and the special ambience. The concert was concluded with a joint performance by Yo-Yo Ma and a vocal ensemble specialized in polyphonic music from the region of Epirus in northwestern Greece.

Following a sober and reflective instrumental introduction, Ma accompanied the singers on Αλησμονώ και χαίρομαι (“Forgetful, I am truly glad”), a striking example of Epirotic polyphonic song, whose lyrics and melody still resonate with remarkable force to this day:

Forgetful I am truly glad, but mindful I am saddened;
remembering those foreign lands, I want to set out for them.

Someday in Athens: The 4 Levels of Existence then and now

The band

Mid-1970s, Greece. Following the fall of the military junta, amid difficult circumstances that were however marked by widespread creativity and -hitherto suppressed- artistic activity, a rock band was beginning to take shape through lengthy jams inside improvised music studios somewhere in the western suburbs of Athens. Its name? The 4 Levels of Existence.

The 4 Levels of Existence – top to bottom: Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis, Marinos Yamalakis, Nikos Grapsas / photo by Vassilis Asimakopoulos

The band’s initial line-up consisted of ex-Frog’s Eye members Athanasios Alatas (rhythm guitar) and Christos Vlachakis (drums), together with Marinos Yamalakis (bass – vocals) and Nikos Dounavis (lead guitar). The group started rehearsing and making live appearances  (mostly in local cinemas as was customary for Greek bands at the time), eventually managing to win third place in a music contest organized by the National Radio and Television Foundation (EIRT) in 1975.

After having Dounavis replaced by Nikos Grapsas (lead guitar – vocals), the band was asked to make an album for Venus Records, a small record label specialized -oddly enough- in Greek folk and popular music. It was, nevertheless, a unique opportunity and the band didn’t miss it: On 5 and 6 January 1976 at the legendary Columbia Studios in Athens, their first -and only- album was recorded. Within just 10 (!) hours in total, the recording was ready after two short sessions: first all instrumental tracks were laid, then the vocals were added.

The album

Although born under such tight time constraints and adverse circumstances (there was essentially no producer or sound engineer), the band’s self-tiled debut album was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement : A guitar-based blend of psychedelia, folk and hard rock that also featured Greek lyrics – something unusual for a rock band at the time.

A highly original mix of diverse elements, the record manages to convey a considerably wide spectrum, both musically and emotionally – from teenage aggression and heavy guitar riffs (“Metamorphic”) to controlled emotional outbursts (“The Fool’s Trumpet”) and melodic passages that exude a nostalgic feeling of youthful melancholy and lyricism (“Untitled”, “Disappointment”).

The album’s original 1976 vinyl release – the cover art was created by Athanasios Alatas, initially conceived for Frog’s Eye

Shortly after the album’s release, the band was dissolved. However, their sole recording would follow its own incredible course, becoming a highly sought-after item among record collectors and considered one of the rarest Greek rock discs ever. Moreover, in an amazing turn of events, US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z used Alata’s guitar riff from “Someday in Athens” as a sample for their hit song “Run this Town”, which would be sung by Rihanna and win two Grammy Awards in 2010.

Following subsequent releases in both vinyl and CD format, the 4 Levels of Existence album was recently re-released in beautiful 180gr vinyl by Anazitisi Records, a small independent label that specializes in psychedelic/progressive/blues/jazz/rock records from the 1960s and 1970s.

The movie

Just as the band’s music resurfaces once more, becoming available for a new generation of listeners, the story behind the 4 Levels of Existence has been just made into a film documentary. Directed by Iliana Danezi, the film will be having its première next week at the 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

While offering an overview of the band’s history, the film traces the surviving band members (Alatas, Vlachakis and Grapsas) and depicts them in their current whereabouts, painting their individual portraits and highlighting the development of their distinct personalities. What is more, the three musicians are seen together again some -special- day in Athens, chatting, strolling around old hangouts, and jamming for the first time in a very long time…

The band’s surviving members in 2018, during the shooting of the documentary (left to right: Nikos Grapsas, Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis)

In the end, the band’s story can also be seen as a reflection on changing times and the things that matter most as time flies by: the common aspirations and dreams of youth, the power of friendship, the sense of group solidarity and identity, the fulfillment brought by artistic expression, the feeling that not everything has been futile or wasted…

In the words of the band’s guitarist Athanasios Alatas: “[Our] record is dedicated to all the bands that played in West Attica at the time. All those who didn’t get a chance to record, who broke up, etc. All those who did their best back then, to fulfill their life and dreams through music.”

 

Underwater Chess – OHBTT – Their Methlab in concert

When three of the most outstanding bands the Greek alternative music scene has produced in recent years come together for a joint live show, chances are it is going to be something special.

Indeed, the recent appearance of Underwater Chess, One Hour Before The Trip and Their Methlab at Temple in Athens turned out to be a quite remarkable evening, a unique musical gathering of high standards – and spirits.

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Covering a wide range from post rock and metal to punk and electronica, the bands delivered some exhilarating performances, thus proving that truly authentic and elevating music is still out there, for all those willing to explore and go beyond the fringes of today’s largely commercialized and market-oriented music productions (perhaps ‘products’ would be a better word).

Contemporary music could definitely use more experimentation, innovation, and personal expression – elements found in abundance in all of the aforementioned bands, which will surely continue to entice and entrance audiences both around and -hopefully- beyond Greece.

Psychedelic geometry: Kikagaku Moyo in concert

A few years ago in Tokyo, following an intensive all-night jam, various patterns of geometric nature began to form on the back of Go Kurosawa’s eyelids. That’s what gave the young drummer the idea for a band name: Kikagaku Moyo, Japanese for “geometric patterns”.

The Tokyo-based psychedelic band, originally formed by Go Kurosawa (drums/vocals) and Tomo Katsurada (guitar/vocals) in the summer of 2012, gradually morphed into its current extended line-up, which includes three more members: Daoud Popal (guitar), Kotsu Guy (bass), and Go’s brother Ryu (sitar), who joined the band after studying with acclaimed classical sitar player Manilal Nag in India.

The band recently released its fourth album Masana Temples, recorded in Lisbon and produced by jazz musician Bruno Pernadas, in a conscious effort on behalf of the group to work with someone from a different background and challenge their own perceptions and ideas about psychedelic music.

An exotic -and at times explosive- blend of krautrock, folk, and Indian music, Kikagaku Moyo’s largely Improvisational music is an attempt to liberate both mind and body and create a “bridge between the supernatural and the present”.

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In their highly energetic live performance in Athens (which took place just a few weeks after another excellent concert by fellow Tokyo post-rockers MONO), the band brought successfully together all these diverse elements, rewarding their Greek fans through creating their very own kind of peculiar psychedelic geometry.

Underwater checkMAtE: electronic sounds from Thessaloniki

Edgy meetings

Originally formed in 2011 by Adam Siagas (live electronics) and Thomas Kostoulas (drums), M.A.t.E [Meetings Along the Edge] have been established as one of the foremost electronic ensembles originating from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city and a historically vibrant musical  and cultural hub.

M.A.t.E’s line-up took its definitive form when vocalist Maria-Elisavet Kotini joined the band during the recording of their self-titled debut. A follow-up album called Transitions was released In March 2016. As already signified by the band’s name, their music represents a meeting point of several diverse influences, styles and genres, ranging from drum’n’bass and dubstep to trip hop and electronica.

An eclectic and sonically rich album, Transitions stands at the crossroads between analog and digital, acoustic and electronic, while also balancing between Western tech frenzy and Eastern meditative sounds (see, for example, the Indian influences in Surya).

Along with drums, synthesizers, samples and Maria-Elisavet’s enchanting presence,  M.A.t.E also enhance their live performances with visuals in order to engage audiences and create a more interactive atmosphere. Their strong visual identity is also apparent in their excellent video clips, such as the video for RedruM (directed by Sideris Nanoudis), where sound and image blend artfully to tell a story in a powerful, engaging way.

Along the edge and underwater

Also hailing from Thessaloniki, electro-acoustic duo Underwater Chess (PP – guitars, bass, cymbals, programming / MV – violins, vocals) started out in the early 2000s by playing covers from artists such as Butthole Surfers and Björk, but soon turned to improvisation and began developing their own distinctive sound.

Following their debut In Joy Your Fear (2011), a kind of sonic collage of various improvisational recordings, their latest album Seriality (released early last year) is in many ways a remarkable achievement. A unique amalgam of electronic, ambient, rock, and dance elements, their sound is characterized by atmospheric and recurring motifs, rich dynamics, and rhytmic intensity.

Featuring imaginative guitars, loops, violin and vocal parts, Seriality is an impressive record not only musically but also in terms of production. Even from a simple hearing, it becomes apparent that a lot of time and effort have been devoted to the programming, mixing and sound engineering in order to produce such a well-polished and carefully crafted record.

Perhaps it is only natural that in a city like Thessaloniki, standing along the edge and next to the water, bands with fresh ideas and edgy sound constantly emerge, competing with each other like in a game οf musical chess – where, of course, there can only be one winner: music lovers, both from their hometown and beyond!