Tag Archives: Epirus

The weird wave of modern Greek rock

Next to the much talked-about weird wave of modern Greek cinema runs another, slightly more obscure, yet powerful artistic current: the emergence of a rich and dynamic Greek stoner/psychedelic/post-rock scene that boasts a large variety of independent and highly original bands.

This vibrant scene didn’t just spring to life from one day to the next. On the heavy side of things, bands like Planet of Zeus or Nightstalker have long been successful in forging a solid sound and creating a dedicated following both within and outside of Greece, having toured and played in many festivals across Europe over the last years.

An interesting blend of stoner rock with the Greek folk (Epirotic, in particular) idiom is the case of Villagers of Ioannina City (aka VIC). One of the most promising bands that have emerged in recent years, they have created a distinctive sound resulting from the marriage of slow, heavy guitar playing and the use of clarinet, which carries with it emotional overtones associated with Epirotic music while allowing for explosive and highly virtuosic playing.

Meanwhile, the global rise of post-rock since the early 1990s (with names such as Sigur Rós and Mogwai) has also left its marks upon the Greek experimental scene. A surprising number of smaller -yet very capable and creative- groups (a selection of which you can find below) have slowly but steadily created a unique and diverse soundscape that reflects many of the frustrations and difficulties they are facing, while also encapsulating their creative urge and drive for change.

An excellent example of why limited means do not necessarily translate into compromise in quality is One Hour Before the Trip, a band I discovered during a recent visit in Athens.

Comprised of skilled musicians, technicians and visual artists, the Athens-based instrumental rock ensemble has managed to self-finance their own studio, thus maintaining total creative control (independently composing, recording and mixing their music) and producing exemplary albums such as their latest release Boarding Pass.

The weird wave of Greek rock is surely on the rise. Let it be a long trip ahead before it crashes against the shore…

Greek lament meets avant-garde at the Westminster Abbey

The composer

Born in 1987 in Volos, Greece, Dimitrios Skyllas started playing the piano at an early age and went on to study musicology and piano performance at the University of Kingston, London. He has also studied composition and aesthetics at the University of Edinburgh, and holds a second postgraduate degree in composition from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas Photo: Luca Bonatti

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas
Photo: Luca Bonatti

Currently based in London, Skyllas is a collaborator (composer in residence) with KYKLOS ENSEMBLE and also performs as a solo pianist next to his compositional and teaching activities.

Earlier this year, the composer’s popularity saw a sharp rise following a successful performance of his piece GRIEF GESTURES by KYKLOS ENSEMBLE in Athens. The work, originally premiered on May 26th 2012 and based on traditional laments from the region of Epirus, was particularly inspired by Greek clarinetist Petroloukas Chalkias, one of the greatest exponents of the Epirotic clarinet tradition.

The premiere

For his new organ piece EARTH MINUS, laments of Epirus (such as “Siko Mariola”) served once again as a source of inspiration for Skyllas, together with two artists who have deeply influenced and enriched his creative viewpoint: Icelandic songwriter Björk and American video artist Bill Viola.

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Dimitrios Skyllas with organist Ourania Gassiou

The world premiere of EARTH MINUS took place on Sunday, September 27th at the Westminster Abbey, where London-based organist Ourania Gassiou performed the organ piece together with works by Johannes Brahms and Pierre Cochereau.

“I met Ourania a few months ago and she showed true interest in the fact that I composed an Epirus lament, especially because she is originally from that area of Greece! After a few discussions, she asked me if I would be interested in composing a lament for organ to be presented at the Westminster Abbey”, says Skyllas, who gladly took on the challenge. “I feel privileged to have met Ourania; she is an extraordinary musician, and I hope we keep our collaboration for future projects. I feel that my piece is absolutely ‘safe’ in her hands!”

From Epirus to the world

As to the influence Greek traditional music has had upon his work, Skyllas explains: “When I started composing, I wanted to prove that I can become what we usually call a ‘European avant-garde composer’ without realising that I was actually much closer to the musical tradition of my country. Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it.”

He goes on to analyse his fascination with laments in particular: “I started to become interested in the laments from Epirus because inside their sound I discovered some qualities that expressed in depth my emotional stages. In musical terms, the lament is characterized by quite a distinctive sound, the simplicity of the melodic lines, the dialogue between the instruments, the pedal notes that allow space for improvisation, the pulse and atmosphere of its ritual. Besides, it is music about death… and my own obsession with Death and Time was certainly an important parameter.”

“Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it”

Epirus is well-known for its folk songs, polyphonic tradition, and highly virtuosic instrumentalists, while its music has managed to attract international attention in large part due to the unique expressivity and emotional depth of its traditional laments – an expression of the universal practice of dealing with grief through musical means.

The fact that elements of this rich tradition are being incorporated into avant-garde compositions by a young contemporary composer with popular appeal is indeed remarkable. And certainly hopeful, since it helps highlight the unity and continuity of music regardless of labels, as Skyllas’s 21st-century laments so tellingly demonstrate.

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.

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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.

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Instruments of sorrow

Moreover, from a musical standpoint, it is interesting to trace the direct influence of such instrumental treatments on subsequent non-folk Greek music, as in the case of Socrates and their popular song Mountains.

The clarinet’s mourning

In neighboring Turkey, the song “Yemen Türküsü” mourns the death of Turkish soldiers in Yemen during the First World War. The well known folk song can be found in several different versions, and it has been also performed by Taksim Trio, a band of accomplished instrumentalists (Hüsnü Şenlendirici – clarinet, Aytaç Doğan – qanun, İsmail Tunçbilek – baglama) that has been part of Istanbul’s diverse and vibrant music scene.

The guitar’s outcry

One of the oldest and most despondent forms of flamenco music, siguiriyas is characterized by its profound, expressive style and tragic nature. When sung, the lyrics reflect the suffering of human relationships, love and death; however, it is also encountered as an instrumental piece with great potential for emotional outlet in the hands of the capable and sensitive artist – as in this performance by flamenco composer and guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar.