Terra Nostra: our world is explored in new ways in the music of Savina Yannatou. The innovative Greek singer and her band Primavera en Salonico propose a wide-open sound which embraces the simplest of folk songs as well as improvising that both draws upon far-flung traditions and moves beyond them.
As one critic put it, “Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico are rope-dancers on the line that links the modal music of the East with its Western European counterparts, the mu-sic of the Middle Ages and the polyphonic forms of the Mediterranean. Starting out from the melismatic riches of the Eastern Maqam and the charming irregular rhythms of the mid-East they explore the territory of collective free improvisation, meeting modern jazz there.”
Not the least of Yannatou’s achievements is the way in which she makes this broad cul-tural sweep seems natural, inevitable and even necessary.
There is an argument being worked out in the music, concerned with the interconnect-edness of traditions, musics, peoples, an undercurrent of deliberately crossing, and un-dermining, cultural frontiers and rivalries. Yannatou, together with arranger/multi-instrumentalist Kostas Vomvolos, formed the band Primavera en Salonico in 1994 for an album of the same name which addressed the plight of the Jews of Thessaloniki and investigated the common thread that runs through musical traditions throughout the Balkan region.
On Terra Nostra, the range is wider. On this live recording from her hometown of Ath-ens (she was born there in 1959), Savina Yannatou brings together traditional songs originating from Greece, Bulgaria, Scotland, Sardinia, Lebanon, Spain, France, Asia Minor, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico re-invent these songs with tremendous élan, fire and spirit.
The roots of most of the band members are in jazz, and this is evident in the untradi-tional approach they take to traditional instruments. These musicians are able to follow Yannatou wherever her inspirations lead her, whether beautifully stating an old melody or leaping headlong into terra incognita. Savina Yannatou observes that “new elements emerge in each performance. A central theme on Terra Nostra is the dialogue: a dia-logue between traditional melody and elements of free improvisation as well as a dia-logue between songs in different languages but with similar melodies, and between two voices from different cultures.” Two voices, yes. In addition to Yannatou’s own spell-binding vocals, Terra Nostra showcases, on five of its 20 tracks a second singer of ex-ceptional gifts, Tunisian vocalist Lamia Bedioui. Bedioui and Yannatou have often per-formed a cappella duets in the past. On Terra Nostra their voices interweave with the band in strong support. The results are fascinating, and unique, as Lamia sings Arabian melodies and Savina embroiders with free improvised countermelodies.
Savina Yannatou’s musical odyssey has taken her through many genres and idioms. In Greece she is also known as a singer of early music and renaissance and baroque mu-sic; she has been a member of the Early Music Workshop of Athens since 1983. Last year she toured Europe with the late bassist Peter Kowald and saxophonist/clarinettist Floros Floridis. In between, there have been myriad activities…
A professional singer since 1979, Yannatou studied song with at the National Conserva-tory and with Spiros Sakkas at the Workshop of Vocal Arts in Athens, and made post-graduate studies at London’s Guildhall School. While still a student, she sang on the highly popular Greek radio show Lillipoupoli, then under the direction of composer Manos Hadjidakis.
She has collaborated with many contemporary composers, singing for instance in the operas of Nikos Mamangakis, and her own compositional endeavours have included music for theatre, TV documentaries, video art, and pantomime, and electronic music. Yannatou is also renowned for her interpretation of modern Greek song and enjoyed a long collaboration with songwriter Lena Platonos. She has contributed to Greek Radio workshops on electronic music and improvisation, and appeared as singer/actor in plays directed by N. Zouka.
In January 2003, Savina Yannatou hosted a special concert at London’s Queen Eliza-beth Hall, a celebration of contemporary Greek culture on the occasion of the Greek Presidency of the European Union. Supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, the concert features Savina singing songs by Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, Mamangakis, Tsitsanis and Trypani, backed by Primavera en Salonico, plus the English Players con-ducted by Guy Protheroe, and with Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington reading Greek poetry in English translation.
“The timbre of Yannatou’s voice is almost unparalleled today and I could describe its intensity as similar to a secular Diamanada Galas, with whom she shares the courage to let her voice express all her feelings without too much concern for al-ways producing ‘nice’ sounds. Her rendition of a traditional Hebrides love song for ex-ample has a warmth and longing very Celtic in their feel. Two minutes later, her voice is erupting in anger and possessed cacophony, while the band has switched from a laid-back folk ensemble to a free jazz locomotive…Terra Nostra is demanding yet captivat-ing, a must for anyone interested in powerful female vocals”
– Nondas Kitsos, Rootsworld, US.
“Yannatou’s musicianship is extraordinary, yet her approach is restrained. She lets the music do the wooing. There is something medieval about a young woman with a tam-bourine, singing to drum and tambour accompaniment. Her approach is to begin with deceptive innocence and then let carnal, peasant earthiness emerge….Yannatou is in fact a chameleon: playful, sexy, and richly endowed with musical intelligence. She is an astonishing artist.” – John Slavin, The Age, Australia.
“An incomparable concert. Savina sang like the angels. Like the nightingales. I have no words to describe it. I can only say that she sings exactly as she wants, without any technical or expressive limit. The dream voice. We must assume that the Greek singer has received a divine gift. “ – Roberto Villareal, Diario de Burgos, Spain.
“Greek singer Savina Yannatou has found a way to tease out the hidden affinities be-tween the traditional and the adventurous. In concert, accompanied by her glorious en-semble Primavera en Salonico, she sang songs from the full Mediterranean panorama. It’s gutsy for a Greek singer to sing songs from Turkey and Albania, alongside Smyrnaic songs from the 20s rembetika underground.” – John Corbett, Chicago Sun-Times.