Savina Yannatou & Primavera En Salonico
Terra Nostra

greek vocalist Savina Yannatou and her ensemble bring a free jazz-inspired passion to traditional pieces from across the Mediterranean. Far more rooted in classical approaches than such kindred spirits as John Zorn's Masada or Chris Speed's Pachora, Yannatou merges unbridled emotion and abstraction in a fascinating way on her third album.

The disc is a live set that draws from a diverse repertoire to explore the musical links between the disparate parts of the region. A large number of the connections come from the Sephardic Jews, a community that lived in Spain for almost 1,000 years until their expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 forced them to disperse around the Mediterranean. Indeed, "No Seas Capritchioza" and "Kadife", two of the songs included here, have lyrics in Ladino, the Sephardic language, along with other tongues within the same track. A slightly more subtle link is forged by the pairing of the Provencal "Adieu Paure Carnavas" with "Wa Habibi", a hymn from the Orthodox Arabs' Church with a remarkably similar melody.

Drawing from such a widespread songbook, Yannatou's voice is capable of veering from beautifully sung melodies to wild ululations during her improvisations. Similarly touched with the spirit is Nay player Haris Lambrakis, who turns in particularly fiery solos on "Tres Hermanicas Eran" and "Jaco". Also featured is violinist Kyriakos Gouventas, who has a lovely solo on "No Seas Capritchioza", and whose bow-scraping pyrotechnics on "Hey Het" match Yannatou's own. Joining them are multi-instrumentalists Yannis Alexandris (oud, guitar, tamboura) and Kostas Vomvolos (kanoun, accordian, caliba, tamboura), along with percussionists Lefteris Ahgouridakis and Antonis Maratos, bassist Michalis Siganidis, cellist Tassos Misyrlis, and vocalist Lamia Bedioui. Bedioui’s vocal contributions have a more nasal tone and adhere more closely to the classic Middle Eastern style. Her shining moment is on "Yiallah Tnem Rima", in which she provides the melody while Yannatou improvises around her.

It takes a while for the group to warm up. "With The Moon I'm Walking" is a suitable pensive opener and "Ivan Nadonka Dumashe" builds up a head of steam, but the album almost derails on "A Fairy's Love Song". It's a pretty tune that's unfortunately reminiscent of Loreena McKennitt. That spectre is promptly dismissed by "Ballo Sardo", an angrily political song from Sardinia that takes flight via the intensity of Yannatou's ululations.

Following that is a sequence of songs with a distinctly Arabic feel, even though their origins range from Spanish "El Barquero" to Lebanese "Schubho Lhaw Qolo". Following a pair of Sephardic songs ("Tres Hermanicas Eran" and "Los Bilbilicos"), the album climaxes with "Hey Het"- a Lebanese song about exile and the associated longing for one's home. It begins with an a cappella rendition by Bedioui. After a short time, she is joined by the band and finally by Yannatou, whose improvisations spiral around the violin and cello with a dizzying intensity. She then gives a speaking-in-tongues performance of "Ah Mon Die", a song from Guadelupe whose arrangement allows the band to draw out the North African influences on Caribbean music with trance-inducing percussion and thumb piano joined by a bass figure reminiscent of the lines played on the gimbri by the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. The album then slowly builds to another climax on the concluding track "Jaco". The closer is a Sephardic song from Salonica (a city in the northern part of Greece) that features a fierce duet between the nay and Yannatou that only ends after some serious bow scraping from the violinist and cellist.

And while this album isn’t a complete success, overall, it is well worth investigating for fans of the explorations of Jewish, Balkan, and Middle Eastern music made by John Zorn, David Douglas, and Chris Speed or even of the abstract vocal stylings of Yoko Ono and Patty Waters.

Instrument Glossary:

Caliba- the thumb piano heard on "Ah Mon Die".

Gimbri- a 3-stringed instrument similar to the bass.

Kanoun- a large zither, often with 70 to 100 strings arranged in courses of three.

Nay- a traditional flute, usually either end-blown or played at an oblique angle.

Oud- fretless lute, usually with 5 or 6 pairs of strings.

Tamboura- Bulgarian or Macedonian lute with 3 or 4 pairs of strings.

Reviewed by: Jim Storch
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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