Songs of Thessaloniki

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Savina Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico
Songs of Thessaloniki
ECM Records

Savina Yannatou, along with her group of trustworthy friends, returns to the city that first put her on the map. Located in the North of Greece, Thessaloniki is the second largest city in the country. Established in the Late Antiquity years, it has had a tumultuous history, even though it's quite modern by Greek standards, at only around 2,600 years old. It is a city where the Christian Saint Paul sent his epistles and a city that is Byzantine in spirit, a fact that Yannatou references by opening and closing the record with the hymn of the patron saint of the city, Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki.

"Apolitikion Agiou Dimitriou" (Greek)

Following its occupation by the Ottoman Turks in 1360, it became the prime destination spot for the Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain. To complicate matters, Kemal Ataturk, creator of the modern non-Ottoman Turkish state was born in this area. In that context, that city has spiritual and strategic value for a lot of people.

"Iptidadan yol sorarsan" (Turkish)

The tumult increased in the early part of the Twentieth Century when all that is negatively associated with the word “Balkan” came to a tipping point in the most important city in the South of that peninsula. A city where Greeks, Ottomans, Bulgarians and Serbs fought a deadly war of attrition for control of the access to the Mediterranean Sea, where the Entente Cordiale fought against the German and Bulgarian alliance in the First World War and where the Exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey led to the forced relocation of 1,500,000 Greeks and 500,000 Turks, all happened within ten years. Then a fire completely destroyed the city center, an event as memorable to the soul of Thessaloniki as the 1666 London fire or the 1871 Great Chicago fire. All these events took place in a city that was populated largely by Sephardic Jews.

"Tin patrida mou ehasa" (Pontiac-Greek)

All this, however, created a city unlike any other in Greece when it comes to cosmopolitanism, a fact that still holds true today. It is into this melting pot that Savina Yannatou has decided to jump.

There is little need to dwell on the musical quality of this recording. Anyone familiar with her previous efforts would know that Yannatou and Primavera en Salonico are a unique presence in the global music scene today. Her voice is mesmerizing and the band is playing better than ever on an array of traditional instruments: qanun, accordion, oud, guitar, violin, nay, double bass and percussion. This is music that sounds authentic, yet fresh and which evokes what she has talked about as the guiding spirit: an aural postcard, a musical "Souvenir de Salonique” from a time long, long ago.

Where their genius really shines is in the better-known songs. “To yelekaki” is the most characteristic example, a song worth listening to in other versions just so you can see what a difference her intervention makes, especially with her decision to use a Turkish bit in the song. (It was not atypical in the period to have the same song recorded in two or three languages so that all the various communities could embrace it.)

"To yelekaki" (Greek)

The stories she narrates are very real, very passionate affairs, songs of people both strong and downtrodden: schoolgirls, refugees, prisoners, people in love. To listen to this record, I put on headphones and walked in the early hours of the day: it's easier that way to meet the ghosts of residents past, that still dwell there, even though the modern city bears almost no resemblance to that strange land these characters populate: a series of traumatic events (the population exchange, the mass killing of the Jewish citizens, the movement of people into the city) has left nothing but the monuments, the landmarks and a few houses standing.

"La cantiga del fuego" (Sephardic)

Yannatou notes in the accompanying booklet that she wanted to keep the spirit of the songs and the stories alive. She succeeds. These recordings transport you out of everyday reality, into a land and a time far removed from our digital times.

Songs of Thessaloniki feels like the culmination of all her previous efforts: it is the recording that ties all of her work together, a musical and spiritual powerhouse, a record of intellect and soul. - Nondas Kitsos



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