Photo Credit: Johanna Diehl
Simon Roth spoke to singer Savina Yannatou about her gig with Primavera en Salonico on the 18th May at JW3; part of a festival celebrating Sephardic Jewish music. Tickets HERE
Simon Roth: When did you know you wanted to devote your life to music?
Savina Yannatou: I never knew this. It was happening and I only realised it afterwards, or I never realized it at all. It was just a given for me that the choices I made were in favor of music and not another art or occupation. It is more the others who understand this as devotion. For me it was and is a source of joy, not devotion. It is more like a way to escape…
SR: You studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama towards the beginning of your career. What does it mean to you to be returning to London to perform in 2014?
SY: It meant a lot to me shortly after I graduated, and I was moved when I first performed in the Barbican and the Queen Elizabeth Hall some years later. I had been going as a listener to extraordinary concerts in these places and to perform there myself had been a “dream”. I also like the possibility of meeting again any of my fellow students. It was a particularly creative course and we had very good contact at the time.
SR: Can you expand a little on the relationship between traditional Greek music and the Sephardic songs that you play with Primavera en Salonico?
SY: Obviously some of the Sephardic songs which appeared between the wars and the genre which in Greece we call “Smyrnaen Song” are related. There are Sephardic songs which differ from some of these Greek songs only in the lyrics. In the older Sephardic songs the Spanish element is more apparent.
SR: How did you first discover Sephardic music? And how did the album ‘Spring in Salonica’ come about?
SY: The first time I heard these Spanish-Jewish songs was through the voice of Montserrat Figueras. It was her voice which inspired me at the time, not the melodies. That was the reason why, when in 1993 I was asked to sing these songs, I accepted with great joy. I think that her influence on me is apparent in the recording. About the Sephardic songs I learned more and more in the course of the recording work, and I am still learning, as also about their history in Thessaloniki.
For this production all was settled except the interpreter of the songs. The secretary of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki at the time, A. Narr, was collaborating with a university professor, X. Kokolis on the collection and study of the songs. They had found the arranger (K. Vomvolos) and the label (Lyra). But they hadn’t found a singer. I was very lucky that the producer of Lyra D. Rizou asked me if I was interested. And I say “lucky”, because except for the fact that I came in touch with a culture and history which I wasn’t familiar with, this production became the cause of the creation of the group Primavera en Salonico with whom I have released six more CDs with music focusing mostly on the Mediterranean. This production was the start of many travels with “Primavera” to festivals all over the world during the past 20 years. It created opportunities for collaborations with artists whom we would otherwise probably never have met.
So, if they say metaphorically that “a voice can make you travel”, in my case the voice of Montserrat Figueras “travelled me” literally.
SR: How does improvisation work within your music? And how have you been influenced by jazz and other improvisatory music?
SY: I have been influenced mostly by free jazz. And this is how I improvise in the traditional songs. I don’t use the traditional improvisation style, but a free one. This entails a risk. A foreign world invades the song. Foreign towards its melody and history… This can become very interesting. It’s like creating a story parallel to the story which is being narrated in the song.
Simon Roth: What can we expect at your concert at JW3 on Sunday 18th May?
Savina Yannatou: In this concert, together with “Primavera en Salonico”, we will play Sephardic songs. Some of these songs talk about areas and events in Salonica, some others about love, marriage, fairy tales, dreams. During these songs we usually do not improvise or we do it very little.
JW3 is at 341 Finchley Road, NW3 6ET