Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico - Music of Thessaloniki - ECM 2398



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Savina Yannatou’s fourth ECM album is a dazzling evocation of her band’s hometown, plunging deep into its rich and complex history. Once known colloquially as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, Thessaloniki has been home to a host of cultures, religions and ethnic communities. Greeks, Jews, Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Armenians, Slav-Macedonians and Pontiac Greeks have shared the city’s diverse life. Yannatou gives all of them a voice, even casting an Irish song about Salonika into this multi-lingual programme, in which she shines as a unique interpreter and spokeswoman for the city’s ghosts. As ever, Primavera en Salonico are a delight, one of the most resourceful bands of any idiom, as they negotiate the inspired – and very varied - arrangements of Kostas Vomvolos.

Postcards of sound, snapshots from the past: such were Primavera’s starting points for this project.

Savina Yannatou: “Old songs, as if with the label Souvenir de salonique, were our original materials. They became canvases for our imagination to create contemporary narratives on old myths. Sometimes the original ‘pictures’ are merely coated with colour, sometimes only the outlines are saved, and sometimes the addition of the new material transforms them completely. There is however an element which remains – by choice – almost unaltered throughout this process: the timbre of the instruments. This is what mostly forms the ‘texture’ of the material and conveys the final sense of the whole endeavor.”

Behind the instrumental texture are the personalities of the players. This is a characterful group, whose core members have been collaborating as an ensemble for more than 20 years. Primavera en Salonico was formed in 1993 to play Vomvolos’s arrangements of Sephardic Jewish songs, with Savina as vocalist.


Project

But musical connections between several of the players stretch back still further, to the beginning of the 1980s. Between them they have played traditional music and thoroughly experimental music, and the range of experience opens new perspectives on this programme of songs.

Listen for instance to the arrangement of the Sephardic traditional “La cantiga del fuego”, which speaks of the great fire which destroyed the centre of the city in 1917. Savina and band conjure the flickering flames in an eerie introduction and then deliver a lament which could only be phrased by traditionalists with present-day improvisational awareness. An Armenian folk song collected by Komitas is transformed into a poised chamber music miniature. A Bektashi Sufi song from Turkey praises Mohammad’s son-in-law as “the light filling up the world”, and draws for some deeply soulful ney and percussion-playing.

Meanwhile, the sardonic lyrics of the Irish song “Salonika” from the first world war period, inspire Savina to an almost Brechtian music hall treatment, “And when the war is over /What will the soldiers do?/They'll be walking around with a leg and a half/And the slackers, they'll have two...”

Different social, philosophical, and religious viewpoints swarm here. The liner notes, by Savina’s sister Sofia Giannatou, remind us of the ways in which music could unite across cultural divides in the old Thessaloniki, “Family gatherings and religious feasts provided opportunities for singing and dancing, and in the taverns several musical styles were performed by musicians of all ethnic groups; Judeo-Spanish songs, oriental melodies, Greek and Turkish lyrics, Balkan tunes, all coexisted and often lent elements to each other in improvisations that enriched and broadened the repertory.


Project

A Christian cantor might meet there with a synagogue chanter, singing secular songs for their own enjoyment, amateur singers would interact with professional musicians, versions of lyrics in three languages might interchange in the same songs.” This tradition of tolerance and mutual encouragement is echoed in Songs of Thessaloniki.

Songs of Thessaloniki was produced by Manfred Eicher, and recorded at Sierra Studios, Athens, in February 2014.