Greeks in Jerusalem

Estudiantina ensemble and Andreas Katsigiannis host vocalist Alkistis Protopsalti in the closing gala show of Jerusalem’s Oud Festival.

Over the past couple of decades the Jerusalem International Oud Festival, under the auspices of Jerusalem’s Confederation House and its artistic director, Effie Benaya, has offered the public a wide range of ethnic musical fare. In addition to the base Arabic material, Greek music of various strains has increasingly featured in the annual program, and it will be prominent in the 2019 edition of the festival, which takes place November 21-30.
The 10-dayer closes on November 30 with a Greek-based gala showing, when the Estudiantina ensemble, under the aegis of Andreas Katsigiannis, who also plays santouri and sings, hosts celebrated vocalist Alkistis Protopsalti. The troupe’s repertoire is a broadly roaming spread described as “a journey from the music of Smyrna and Constantinople to Rebetiko song, as well as the related music of the Mediterranean and the Balkans.”
Katsigiannis says that the idea was to cast the stylistic net as far as possible from the outset, while embracing different cultural baggage and musical avenues of creation. “The orchestra was founded in 1998. I made that decision first of all, to honor the orchestras that flourished in Smyrna and Istanbul in the previous century, but more than that, I wanted to create an orchestra that, based on our tradition, would combine in its character all these elements from the past with a modern outlook on the future.”
It was about feeding off the roots as artists very much living and working in the here and now. “I invited mainly people my age, my musician friends, so that we would play the music we love, propose a contemporary sound for everything coming from the past, and use our individual ideas in order to create new forms, both in the composition and the arrangement of music,” Katsigiannis continues.
He says he and his cohorts continue to push the boat out as far as they can, without losing sight of home. “We’ve been the same people at the core of the orchestra for almost 22 years, and from time to time we recruit new people who have some extra knowledge or information to offer in every new thing we create, because our ultimate goal is that every proposition we make should be a new and different one.”
For Katsigiannis, eclecticism has always been the name of his game.
“In music, and even more so in musical ensembles, it is always interesting when there’s variety,” he explains, adding that that is partly down to regional zeitgeist. “Our country, like the whole of the Mediterranean, is a garden of music. There is a harmonious coexistence of the West and the East, the sea bringing together love and pain, the new land with the love of home, death and life, and all these exist through the songs and the common traditions of the people. This way, every land has its own tradition, which makes it special and unique, with a strong cultural identity. When we approach the music of other countries, we mainly care about their cultural and historical background. This is exactly what made our sound as an orchestra unique.”
That mind-set is also the product of Katsigiannis’s own upbringing.
“I was born in Athens and grew up in a profoundly musical environment,” he notes. “My grandmother was from Asia Minor, and my grandfather was an amateur musician and chanter. The family found itself in Piraeus at the beginning of the previous century, in the midst of immigrants, where the songs of Asia Minor paved the way for a new kind of music, the Rembetiko and folk song.”
His training, both on a technical musical level and in terms of outlook, began at home. “My father, a musician and singer himself, gave me my first view of music. He taught me to listen to music, finding primarily the aesthetics and harmony in sound and speech. I learned the art of Byzantine music, our traditional instruments, and I studied European music. I studied the poets through the song versions of their poems.”
As he grew up Katsigiannis maintained an ever-widening continuum, which informs his work to this day. “My influences vary, from jazz and rock music all the way to the classical music of peoples of the West and the East. Through all this information, I created my own musical world, bearing all these elements.”
THE CONCERT in Jerusalem will also feature some of Protopsalti’s own material, and the vocalist says she bonded with the ensemble’s work from the off.
“I first worked with the composer Andreas Katsigiannis two years ago. He gave me a beautiful song, ‘The Light,’ with lyrics by Mimi Denisi, for a theater production about Smyrna,” she recalls. “I loved the sound. It reminded me of my childhood. I am moved by the Estudiantina sound. I feel I am on a journey, and I immediately accepted the invitation to be the orchestra’s guest at the Oud Festival.”
While she will be front and center for part of the show, Protopsalti says all the musicians share equal footing, and that her own performance level is fueled by the collective endeavor. “We will play some of my songs that fit the Estudiantina sound, and they will definitely sound different. We will also perform other songs we chose. Andreas Katsigiannis is an excellent composer and an intelligent musician. The orchestra is driven by passion, inspiration and musicality. They are all soloists.”
Katsigiannis is delighted to bring his rich accrued oeuvre over here, and says he feels a bond with local sounds and sensibilities. “Israel is a country with a very rich musical tradition, and it is connected to our own music with strong ties. It is a great honor for me and my orchestra to have been invited to one of the greatest music festivals, the Jerusalem International Oud Festival.”
Katsigiannis believes we will get the message. “At the festival, we will be presenting a repertoire with an essence from the Orient for the first time, having as a special guest the great Greek singer Alkistis Protopsalti. We are looking forward to communicating, through our music, with the audience of Israel and, more significantly, with the audience of Jerusalem.”
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