A Language of Languages

By Bromell, Nick | Tikkun, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Language of Languages


Bromell, Nick, Tikkun


"I like to be quiet," says Savina Yannatou, the virtuosic Greek I singer whose recent CDs have garnered her a world-wide audience since 1995. In Spring in Salonika, she recovers and interprets with meticulous and reverent love

the music of Thessalonika's once-thriving Sephardic Jewish community-wiped out by the Nazis in 1944. In Mediterranea, she brings together folk songs from Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Sicily, Spain, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean, giving us a world of haunting songs beneath the maps and national boundaries that have cut apart the peoples of that region. And in her most recent work, the live recording Terra Nostra, she gives us a chance to sit in on the jazz-influenced musical conversation she has with the extraordinarily talented musicians who comprise her band, Primavera en Salonika.

But quietness is not the quality you'd first ascribe to Yannatou's work. Using her voice as an instrument of seemingly limitless range, she can croon a heartbreaking Scottish melody on one track of Terra Nostra and break into a fury of yelps and ullulations on the next-a traditional dance from central Sardinia whose lyrics warn:

Be careful, barons, to moderate your tyranny,

Otherwise I swear to you that you will lose your power...

Indeed, there are moments when Yannatou's voice sounds like some pri-mal power distilled from the entire spectrum of women's vocalizations: not just a traditional feminine sweetness but shouts, moans, chatter, nagging, screams, laughter, coos, and cries. Her voice has incredible intricacies of expression, myriad details of delivery that would sound rococo if they weren't grounded on the very simple structures of the songs she sings. There is something birdlike in her quickness and precision and also in the overflowing generosity of her sound. When I heard her in concert I thought at once of Keats's famous line: her "voice pours forth her soul abroad in such an ecstasy." Part Bessie Smith, part Edith Piaf, part Ornette Coleman, and part Janis Joplin, she is anything but "quiet."

And yet, I know what she means about the quietness in her music. Like Billie Holiday (of whom Savina remarks, "I think she is the best of us all"), she is a listening singer. Her voice is called into different musical spaces and different musical cultures, inhabiting and interpreting them with the utmost respect. Her voice is always doubled back on itself, haunted and self-reflective-as though it were listening for something that is just around the corner, just out of reach, in the shadows at the edge of her sound.

Listening for what? If Billie Holiday tends to root us to one spot, (the place from which her painful joy issues forth into the world), Yannatou carries us on a voyage into different musical dialects with varied textures and inscapes.

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