In Hellenic heaven listening to the opera stylings of Eleni Vitali

HER FORTHCOMING Israeli shows will be largely based on tried and tested numbers, but with some new twists and energies slotted betwixt the musical warp and woof.

In Hellenic heaven  with Eleni Vitali (photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
In Hellenic heaven with Eleni Vitali
(photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Fans of music from this end of the Mediterranean Basin – give or take a few hundred kilometers – are in for a treat early in the New Year. This will not be Greek singer Eleni Vitali’s first working visit here, not by a long shot, but her forthcoming confluence with the Jerusalem Orchestra East West promises to provide her audiences with an entertaining, thrilling time for their heard-earned cash.
Her two-date Eleni and the Orchestra foray takes in a concert at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on January 5 (8 p.m.), followed by a slot at the Ashdod Performing Arts Center on the morrow (8:30 p.m.).
Now a seasoned internationally acclaimed vocalist, 65-year-old Vitali has been working her magic, around the world, for over 45 years, and has more than 30 albums out under her own name. A few years back she recorded a stirring duet, “Porque,” with world-famous Israeli ladino songstress Yasmin Levy.
Vitali received her first musical educational along with her mother’s milk. Born into a musical Romani family, she spent her earliest years crisscrossing Greece together with her musician parents. Her father, Takis Lavidas, played the santur – a hammered dulcimer – and her mother, Lucy Karageorgiou, sang at various festivals around the country. Naturally, as an infant, Vitali laid her inquisitive hands on all kinds of instruments.
She does not look back on her childhood as anything out of the ordinary, and says there are benefits and disadvantages to different lifestyles. “All people, one way or another, have an unconventional lifestyle, at least to an extent, especially when you are freelancing, which is what we musicians do. Indeed, you enjoy some freedoms, but on the other hand there are difficulties. My parents were very tender and always made sure that their lifestyle, our lifestyle, did not have any negative effect on my childhood and education.”
Vitali says that, musically, she gained much from her DNA, and celebrates that through her art. “Music in general has so much to do with the Romani culture, and naturally those influences exist in my music as well. In my opinion, it does in most folk music, which is why I sing ‘Balamo’, the Gypsy song dedicated to Romani culture and people.”
Singing has always come naturally to her, and she says she was introduced to it in the best and most organic way possible. “I started singing very young in an amateur fashion. There is this thing about playing as an amateur. It resembles a love affair, a love affair that you have with your art: you love and you don’t expect something in return. This is something I craved, this relationship with music that came mainly through singing. It might have something to do with my DNA, my heritage; I am not sure. I always loved music, not knowing why. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe, if you know why, there is no point in going on, you’ve completed your journey.”
By the early seventies Vitali was a bona fide star in her own right, particularly following the success of “My Carnation.”
She says, tenderness of age notwithstanding, she thinks she handled her rise to fame pretty well. “Looking back at it, and I think being a bit wiser, I was never in a hurry, and did not assume that everything was immediate.”
“The song [‘My Carnation’] holds a particular place in my heart, written in disguise to avoid censorship for Nikos Beloyannis, a very well-known Greek resistance figure executed in jail. So it wasn’t about fame. It was about resonating to people’s hearts. I think, again looking back at it, it wasn’t easy to realize and comprehend what was going on.”
Although she grew up long before the Internet, and in a country that was cut off from foreign influences for long periods of time, she says eclecticism is part of her national makeup. “Growing up listening to all kinds of music is a privilege, or was a privilege when access to music wasn’t that easy. I think, today, all musicians have diverse influences. Greece culturally stands between East and West, so those influences are everywhere, and this has a great effect on music. There is so much new great music being produced, so many young musicians, even though we live in tough times, which make it more difficult for young people.”
Vitali says she feeds off a diverse spread of cultures and sounds, including many from this end of the world.
“I really enjoy [now 84-year-old Lebanese singer] Fairuz, [late Egyptian diva] Umm Kulthum and [iconic jazz singer] Ella Fitzgerald, whom I was lucky enough to listen to live, with excellent sound, and which blew my mind away. I also really like Turkish female singers. For some reason I prefer female over male singers. From Western music how could I not mention [legendary Greek opera singer] Maria Callas. I know I am not original with this answer, but...,” she laughs.
HER FORTHCOMING Israeli shows will be largely based on tried and tested numbers, but with some new twists and energies slotted betwixt the musical warp and woof.
Vitali is more than happy to reexamine her old songs with new sparring partners. She feels it keeps the music vibrant. “It is always interesting to revisit your music, to see it in a new way. I mean, I recently took some dresses to the tailor and had them remade, and I was so happy with the result. So, I really enjoy this with my material, even so now that I am inviting Tom Cohen and the excellent musicians of Jerusalem’s East and West Orchestra to revisit this material together with a fresh approach. In fact, this is why I constantly try so many new things. Music is a great thing, and while you should always be respectful, there is this artistic freedom that I really enjoy. This is the beauty of music.”
That, she says, is an even more enjoyable experience when she trusts and appreciates her partners in rebirthing. That certainly applies to Cohen and his troupe, and there may be more of the same further down the line. “I know them very well and I appreciate them very much. I appreciate their approach, this blend of Eastern and Western music that I think resonates with my heritage, my identity. I am sincerely looking forward to it, and maybe this is a great start for an ongoing collaboration. As a true believer of artistic collaborations, I would really enjoy that.”
Above all, for Vitali, it is about performing the music and the feedback she gets from her audiences. She says she is always happy to appear here. “It’s not my first time in Israel, as you know. I receive a lot of love from Israeli people, and, trust me, this love goes both ways. It is touching to see your music being appreciated outside your country, and there is a special bond with Israeli people that even travel from Israel to Greece to attend my concerts. It’s really moving. Israeli people are really warm, receptive, and they love Greek music.”
She says that love goes beyond the concert hall. “Unfortunately, I can’t speak the language, but we communicate through music, and this is a really strong bond. Trust me, this is really moving; and every time I come, I do not only stay for the concerts, I stay longer to enjoy the country and its people.”
For tickets and more information: Tel Aviv, (03) 692-7777,; Ashdod, (08) 956-8111,