It’s a lot more than Greek to her

Savina Yannatou and her band Primavera en Solonico, who will perform at the Oud Festival, were brought together by Sephardi music.

Savina Yannatou learned about Judaism when she began singing Sephardi songs. (photo credit: MAARIT KYTOHARJU)
Savina Yannatou learned about Judaism when she began singing Sephardi songs.
(photo credit: MAARIT KYTOHARJU)
Savina Yannatou has been spreading it around a bit for some time now. The 55-year-old Greek singer, who will star in the closing show of this year’s Oud Festival in Jerusalem, appears to be proficient in numerous areas of musical endeavor, and she sings in quite a few languages as well.
Yannatou will front the concert, which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater on November 15, where she will perform with her long-standing band Primavera en Solonico (Spring in Salonika). It is a fitting climax to the 15th installment of the Oud Festival, which takes place under the auspices of Confederation House and its director Effie Benaya.
This year’s program kicks off on November 6 and takes in acts from Greece, Germany, Azerbaijan, Holland and Morocco, as well as Israel. The shows will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater, Yellow Submarine, Beit Shmuel and the Gerard Behar Center.
Considering the wide-ranging musical strands that seem to flow so naturally through Yannatou, she must have been exposed to all kinds of music in her formative years.
“I grew up with Greek music,” she says.
“By that I don’t mean traditional music.
It was urban music – the music of people like [Mikis] Theodorakis – and I also listened to Renaissance music. I was in a choir for children, and many of the songs sung by these choirs are Renaissance music.”
Contemporary commercial sounds also pervaded Yannatou’s teenage consciousness.
“When I was 15 or so, I listened to groups like the Beatles, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and also Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez and, of course, Joni Mitchell,” she says.
That may go some way toward explaining how Yannatou is able to embrace such an eclectic spectrum of styles and genres in her oeuvre. The Athens-born artist started out on her path to musical excellence on classical guitar before joining a children’s choir. She followed her music studies in Athens with a post-graduate course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
She started working professionally at age 20, and two years later she participated in the recording of the critically acclaimed album Lilipoupolis Here.
During the course of her 35-year career, Yannatou has displayed impressive facility with all kinds of musical mindsets.
She has a highly emotive delivery style that appears to feed off rich bluesy sentiments, although you’d be hardpressed to recognize anything too closely connected with the standard 12-bar blues format, as well as velvety vocal textures.
Yannatou came across Primavera en Solonico about 20 years ago. Interestingly, it was Jewish music that brought them together.
“It started from a CD of Sephardi songs that we recorded in Salonika,” recalls the singer. “Then the musicians decided to form a band of that name.”
In fact, Yannatou had not intended to immerse herself in ancient Jewish liturgical material.
“I just liked the music,” she states simply. “I didn’t do any research before we did the recording. I knew some Sephardi songs, and I had sung some of them before, but that was all.”
The venture turned out to be something of a national milestone and a pleasant surprise.
“It was like discovering another world for Greek people. They had never had this kind of music, and the CD sold very well. The people who released the CD didn’t expect to make any money on it. It was very important to record this music in Greece,” she says.
The project represented something of a throwback to the singer’s formative years when she sang Renaissance material in the children’s choir.
“Sephardi songs are part of the Spanish Renaissance period,” she explains.
“So when someone in Salonika asked me to do this CD with the musicians, I was very happy. It was a university that wanted to record Sephardi songs from Saloniki. That was the first time I met the musicians in the band. They are from Saloniki, and we have been together ever since. We perform songs from the Mediterranean and all kinds of other songs.”
Yannatou says she does not consciously go looking for different styles of music to perform, she goes with her personal flow.
“I do whatever is easy for me,” she says.
Clearly, that takes in plenty of musical ground. Over the last 35 years, Yannatou has performed and recorded songs in Greek, Arabic, Ladino and Yiddish. The latter formed part of an Athens theater production of The Dybbuk in 2005. There is also some jazz and other improvisational endeavor in the Yannatou bio, including a daring venture with leading British composer and double bass player Barry Guy.
The Greek singer says she enjoys the cultural border-hopping part of her work.
“Being a musician opens a lot of doors. I didn’t know anything about Jewish culture before I sang that song for The Dybbuk, and I learned something about Judaism as I did when I sang those Sephardi songs. I had to learn a lot of things about the different aspects of the religion. You learn a lot of things in this job,” she says.
Yannatou recently made a musical return to Salonika for the prestigious Germany-based ECM record label, which again brought her into contact with a wide spread of cultures and languages.
“The album is about Saloniki, and it has songs from Saloniki but in different languages – Bulgarian, Turkish, Ladino and others. Most of it was about the Sephardi part, so I read books about it; and the story of the city is very connected to the story of Sephardi Jews,” she says.
It seems that we can expect to enjoy a multicultural experience when Yannatou and Primavera en Solonico come to Jerusalem.
“We will sing Balkan songs and Greek songs and maybe some of the songs on our new album that will come out next year on ECM,” says Yannatou. “I am looking forward to being in Jerusalem.
I’m sure we will all have a good time.”
For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: 624-5206 ext. 4 and www.confederationhouse.org


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