Tag Archives: guitar

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)

Defending an identity: An interview with Algerian guitar legend Lotfi Attar

Founding member of the celebrated Algerian band Raïna Raï back in the 1980s, guitarist and composer Lotfi Attar has acquired a somewhat legendary status in Algerian music circles. A multifaceted artist, Attar has done much to revolutionize the folk genre known as raï, extending its musical vocabulary as well as its audience.

Moreover, Attar boasts a broader understanding of North African music and culture, bringing together elements from various regions and experimenting with different styles. Apart from a unique and innovative musician, he is also a man with a deep passion and love for his country and its culture.

I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his music, his development as a guitarist, and his overall career so far (his answers have been translated from French):

When did you first get seriously involved with music?

My brother Kamel also played the guitar. I started playing in 1962 when I was 10 years old, and in 1969 I joined the group Les Aigles Noirs playing western pop music and performing at parties and weddings. This type of music, however, was not very popular in the smaller villages.

Who are the musicians who had the biggest influence on you?

First of all, The Shadows and their distinctive way of guitar playing, but also American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Brazilian bossa nova composer Sergio Mendes, The Beatles, Carlos Santana with his song Jingo… And then everything my older brothers would listen to. I particularly like the sound of the Gibson and Fender guitars as played by The Shadows or Jimi Hendrix. The first guitar I bought was a Fender Duo-Sonic Mustang.

Apart from guitar players like Hendrix and Santana, when I was a teenager I would also listen to classical composers such as Strauss or Beethoven, and even played some pieces by Mozart.

Algerian guitarist Lotfi Attar / Photo: Nadjib Bouznad

What do you consider the most important moments in you career so far?

First of all, the formation of Raïna Raï in 1980 and the release of the album Hagda (1983), which included the song Ya Zina [the group’s biggest success]. Then, the formation of Amarna in the mid-1980s. For the group’s first album I composed the music while Hamida [Lotfi’s wife] wrote the lyrics in the form of lyric poetry. The group’s vocalist was Djillali Rezkallah [better known as Djillali Amarna], a singer with a beautiful voice coming from a rural vocal culture. I tried to create harmonies to accompany the vocal melodies using instruments like bass guitar, drums, and saxophone [the work stands out for its habitual use of unison, and includes the hit song Khalouni Nabki].

In more recent years, I have developed the “Goumb-Guits” style, where I sing a melody and try to approximate the sound of the gumbri [traditional 3-stringed instrument, also known as sintir] with my guitar. The Tuareg people have their proper style, I only adjust and transform it. So in the Goumb-Guits style, we find a mix of modern instruments (drums, bass guitar, piano, electric guitar) and traditional percussion instruments (karkabous, kallouz, guellal).

What have been your latest projects?

I try to evolve in the domain of musical research and bring forth elements from other world cultures that are often not valued, like Asian music for instance, through the use of the guitar. As I said, I have developed the Goumb-Guits style, but I am not limited to that. I also try to play in other styles such as Orient-Guits, Andaluz-Guits, Alaoui-Guits, and Tergui-Guits. I would also like to work with a European pianist, as I am curious to see how he or she would adapt to my style.

How would you describe your way of playing?

I don’t know… It’s natural. I am defending an identity. I am trying to be different from other guitarists. I would say mostly “Algerian.”

In what ways has Algerian music influenced you?

The Algerian musical influence on my style can be seen in the use of traditional instruments such as the reed flute, the ghaita [North African double reed instrument also known as rhaita], and percussion instruments like the bendir, the gallal, and the karkabous. I have also been influenced by the west-Algerian rural folklore we call trab [the word means “soil”], the alaoui style in my rock playing, as well as the rhythm of saf [a women’s dance], the diwan [similar to gospel], and the tergui [Touareg music related to the blues].

I chose to stay in my native Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria in order to defend the Algerian identity and try to inspire the future generations. What is more, Algeria inspires me; I cannot see myself living in another place.


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Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Paco de Lucía (1947 – 2014) In Memoriam

It was a year and a half ago at the London Jazz Festival when I got to see Francisco Sánchez Gomes (better known as Paco de Lucía) play live. It was to be the first and last time I would ever watch him perform, an experience I will always carry with me for the years to come.

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

There are many things I would like to write about Paco. How he mastered his art from a very young age, expanded the vocabulary of flamenco, experimented with many genres and styles introducing various ‘foreign’ elements into his playing, while acting as an ambassador for flamenco music worldwide and becoming one of the greatest musicians the world has known in recent history.

But perhaps it’s better to let the music speak for itself. Below is a small selection of highlights from Paco’s long and extraordinary career that follow his development as a musician and demonstrate his endless curiosity and constant struggle for perfection and artistic excellence.

  •  Tico-Tico no Fubá is a renowned Brazilian choro music piece (“Tico-Tico” is the name of a bird, the rufous-collared sparrow) which Paco performed in the 1960s.

  • An intimate performance of a rumba flamenca (a style of Spanish flamenco music derived from the Afro-Cuban rumba) which became immensely popular both in Spain and internationally after the release of Paco’s album Fuente y caudal (1973).

  • Paco improvising on a famous theme by Georges Bizet in the film Carmen (1983) by Spanish director Carlos Saura.

  • Paco’s performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez was a remarkable achievement (it was released as an album in 1991), showcasing his brilliant technique and ability to infuse a unique flamenco feel in this staple of classical guitar repertoire.

  • While ever expanding his musical horizons, Paco met and collaborated with numerous great artists including celebrated jazz guitarists  Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin with whom he recorded the acclaimed album Friday Night in San Francisco (1981). Thirty years later, Paco would meet Meola again in Germany for an astonishing performance of Mediterranean Sundance.

Richard Thompson in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

The multi-talented mr. Thompson

British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).

Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

A ‘folky’ power trio

His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”

With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à la Hendrix.

Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.