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.