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Music Review: Savina Yannatou: Songs Of An Other

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  • Music Review: Savina Yannatou: Songs Of An Other

    by Jennifer Kelly /review/64963-savina-yannatou-songs-of-an-other/
    N ov 18 2008

    Haunting melancholy, spirited improvisation

    Savina Yannatou brings together several worlds that seldom collide. In
    fact, if you drew a Venn diagram of where the spheres of Mediterranean
    folk, classical music, and free jazz improvisation intersected, you
    might find her all alone with the intrepid Primavera En Salonica in
    it. It's a small, eclectic corner, but well worth visiting, as she
    and her six-person band explore the interstices of tradition and free
    experiment, classical capabilities, and folk simplicity.

    Yannatou herself is Greek, born in Athens and trained as a vocalist at
    the National Conservatory. Still, the music on this disc is not limited
    to any single tradition. The folk source material for these tunes comes
    from all over the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

    The haunting opener, "Sareri Hovin Mernem", for instance, is based
    on an Armenian song, its singer mourning the disappearance of her
    beloved. The cut begins with a ringing bell, and then Yannatou
    is off, her high, tremulous soprano tracing the melancholy curves
    of the song. Her voice shows the discipline and range of classical
    training, but none of the flourishes. Instead, she sings in a simple,
    straightforward way that keeps the tune at the forefront. The main
    embellishment is an occasional flaring and fluting of the notes that
    seems to suggest suppressed weeping. Yannatou's singing is the heart
    of this piece, but she is enmeshed in a web of lilting, rhythm, the
    non-Western twang of plucked oud, the breathy tones of nay (a kind
    of flute), the pound and sway of drums.

    Later, on "Smilj Smiljana", based on a Serbian tune, Yannatou's
    arranger Kostas Vomvolos takes a large role, his accordion framing
    her clear, emotionally-laden voice. The tone, in this and most other
    songs on the CD, is somber, though there are moments of frolic. "Za
    lioubih maimo tri momi", a Macedonian folk tune, is a light-footed
    reel of violin, winds, and syncopated drums. Yet slipped into this
    nearly-Celtic whirl, you'll hear bits of extended vocal technique
    and free improvisation, a wild eruption of modernism out of a very
    traditional setting.

    That urge to push the boundaries reaches its peak in the new piece
    "O Yannis kai o drakos", a free-jazzy meditation on scraps of Greek
    folk melody. Here Yannatou incorporates pants and gulps and shrieks
    into her vocal style, against an austere backing of double-bass plucks
    and slow-building accordion. It is more jazz than folk - and hardly
    world music at all. Later on "Perperouna", the band bridges these
    two styles, with the free blurts and blasts of nay and bass twisted
    around a sinuous melody. It's the best cut on the disc, and all the
    better for coming just after the blah touristiness of "Addio Amore."

    These two tracks, the first a dull, literal reworking of an
    Italian grape harvest song, the second a brave journey through
    alternately-rhythmed realities, show exactly what Yannatou, and her
    band, Primavera En Salonico, have to do to succeed. Yes, there are
    lovely melodies to be had in the world, and fascinating instruments
    to wrap around them. Still that sort of music gets performed at every
    cultural center in every mid-sized town on the Mediterranean. Making
    the songs new again, exploding their boundaries, infusing them with
    later day meaning...that's more difficult. To its credit, Primavera En
    Salonico accomplishes this more often than not, on this fascinating,
    unclassifiable disc.