It all started as a quick interview about the event Maria is putting together with Out of the Blue as part of this year’s Greek Festival of Sydney. One and a half hours later were still on the phone, having lost track of time, diving head first into a “deep and meaningful”, suspended by a common thread: the passion for music. One subject leads to another like some twisted version of revolving doors, and with the thin line between interviewer and interviewee blurred beyond recognition, we go on and on: about Haztidakis and Theodorakis, about Thanos Mikroutsikos and his opus operandi that was his music based on the lyrics of Berlond Brecht, about the words of Nikos Gatsos and the urban poetry of Savvopoulos, her love for Savvina Yiannatou, the Greek Festival of Sydney, its problems and its prospects, occasionally posing to talk about her own music and the journey she has been on since she was eight.
To call Maria Yiakoulis a Greek singer of the diaspora is to do her a great misservice. What she does, far transcends the boundaries set for Greek song. She is more Kristie Stasinopoulou than Domna Samiou, more world music that simply traditional folk. That is, world music as warm, earthly sounds of the human heart, infused by the colours of the world around us, elements that so often set us apart, but occasionally bring us together. But the further she ventures into the heartland of the music of the world, the closer she sails to the music of her parent’s homeland, the more “foreign” elements she incorporates in her renditions of Greek classics, the more Hellenic they began. That is of course, if you inhabit the Greece – the feeling, the idea rather than the country- of today. Not for her the staleness of the old mentality, carefully packed into the luggages of the first migrants to the land of plenty. This is now, this is fresh. Enjoy the journey.
Maria Yiakoulis, introduce your self.
I was born and bred in Sydney, where I finished my degree in archaeology. My father is from Volos and my mother from Heraklion, Crete. I was born into a some what artistic family. My maternal grandfather played lyra. An instrument he learned from his father, who was considered to be one of the best of his generation in Crete. Even today, if you ask people like Psarantonis (ie Xylouris’ brother) he has the outmost respect for my great-grandfather – Stathogiannis (Ioannis Papadakis). My maternal Grandmother’s father was known as Bouzouki, because he sang so perfectly. When you walk through the village where my mothers family belong, the first thing the elders of the village tell you about is, how wonderfully talented and musical my ancestors were. My father was also a talented dancer. He was the head teacher of the Lyceum Dance Academy during the late 70s and early 80s, plus he has a good voice. My ancestors from my father’s side are also involved in music, in one way or the other.
When did you discover you had a flair for music?
From the very beginning, I would say. I could always sing. I am very blessed in respects on my ability to pick up any instrument – especially wind instruments- and learn how to play it, without lessons. I started with the violin when I was eight, but soon discovered that it wasn’t for me. Before long I switched to the flute and continued with wind instruments throughout my youth and teens.
Did your family nurture your talent for music?
Absolutely. Not only did they nurture it, but also supported me in many ways. As far as I can remember, from primary school to high school, everyone would take turns to take me to music lessons, concert bands and orchestras. Some parents take their kids to soccer or dance. For me it was music. A lot of children are forced to have the “talent”. I was very lucky that it came very easily to me. I consider myself blessed.
What music did you grow up listening to?
When I first started studying music, my first lessons were in classical music. As the years passed, I enjoyed and progressed to more jazzy sounds as well as traditional Greek music. I grew up listening to the voices of George Dalaras and Haris Alexiou and to the music of Hatzidakis, Theodorakis, Spanos. I loved uniqueness of Savvopoulos from the start. Plus through my dad’s involvement in the Lyceum, I listened to traditional music (demotika). The music was always there. As a child, you listen (and in my case, sing along) without truly knowing what these songs mean. Only as an adult, I began to truly appreciate the lyric of poets like Nikos Gatsos (who has written some of the most beautiful lyrics that one can sing). This again came from home. My mother was passionate about poetry and literature and there where all those types of different influences: traditional, ballads, political/activist music. Slowly you learn to appreciate the words, the poetry of music, it opens new avenues to the world of literature. Of course growing up in Australia, I was influenced by the sounds I heard on the radio. My parents also listened to groups like Pink Floyd and The Doors. I had a very balanced diet of music. When I would go and buy music, I would purchase the music of people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Antonio Carlos Jobim as well as groups like the Rolling Stones, The Doors and plenty of Australian bands like the Hoodu Gurus, Midnight Oil and Hunters and Collector.
Do you consciously set to implement these sounds in your own music?
Not, really, it happens naturally. You know what? As a musician, if you don’t try to change, you become boring. Stagnation is the worst thing for the soul. For example, I love “Tzivaeri”. It’s a personal favourite and the audience always s love to hear it and always ask me to sing it. There is not much you can change about “Tzivaeri”. Yet I never sing it the same way twice. What changes is the expression, the mood, there’s so much that challenges you when you are on stage. You have to work with that moment.
Do you find it hard trying to bridge your Greek ancestry with your Australian surroundings?
My experience is that there is a small, but growing group of people that listen to the type of music I represent. I don’t find it difficult to bridge the two cultures I am the two cultures and I enjoy the challenge of creating a sound which identifies my generation.
How do people react when you add different elements into well known songs?
As with most things some love the expression and some don’t. I am very fortunate that in most cases my audience embrace my interpretations and in some ways they have come to expect it. An example of this is “Misirlou” it was about eight years ago I first sang “Misirlou”. It’s a great song, which of course was made famous worldwide by Dick Dale and his guitar, and more recently by its inclusion in the soundtrack of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. I’ve performed Misirlou many times in many different ways, from bringing in unique and exotic instruments to changing the rhythm. What I try to do is take elements from the world around me and incorporate them into my music. What I’m trying to do is world music. Greek song is sacred to me, but I am trying to see it from a universal angle. Buy there’s more to Greek music. Take people like Savvopoulos, who I think is an urban poet to rival Bob Dylan himself. The only barrier is the language; he takes universal influence and draws it into Greek lyric and music.
How further back does your relationship with the Greek Festival of Sydney go?
I’ve been part of the Greek Festival not only through song and music but also through theatre and other activities for over ten years now. I think the Greek Festival has the potential to grow into something enormous. I believe that Greeks of Sydney deserve to have something like that. Bringing the panygiri at Darling Harbour was a great idea. On a personal level, it’s great being part of it. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but the job gets done. From time to time you hear that people are taking the year off but then you see them assisting in their own way, you see how much effort they put into it and you decide to get involved again and offer your experience. I would love to see the Greek Festival as respected and loved as the Sydney Festival. With unity and the right people involved, I am sure it can achieve that. The Greek community needs to be seen, heard and embraced by the Australian public. We need to make sure that Greek music and the Arts are not seen only as bouzouki music and breaking plates and that Greek food is not represented by the souvlaki alone.
What have you prepared for us this year?
My last appearance in the festival was in April 2004, were Ameso presented a show I did at the Opera House Studio. It was a very successful show, where we recorded the performance its there in the vaults for future release. This year the show is presented by Café Carnivale where I am playing with a new set of musicians. My ensemble consists of Yiannis Polkas and George Spanos on guitar, Mark Cauvin on contrabasso and I am hoping Christos Kollias will be back in Australia – he is currently touring – on time to support us on djembe/drums. Our set will include favourites, as well as some new pieces. The event is divided in two parts: there’s myself and my very talented group of musicians and Out of the Blue, with whom I will be performing as well, as guest vocalist. So you will see a lot of me on stage.
How do you choose the songs, what’s the process of deciding how to dress them up?
I have a big repertoire, which I always consider. Then there are factors that come into considerations: how, when, what mood we are in. Sometimes when we sit down to play, a lot of ideas pop up, which find their way into the set. This is how my version “Odos Aristotelous” came into life. It was at the time I was into Bossa Nova so we did it with a Bossa beat, and it worked, and we have been doing it with a Bossa beat ever since.
What do you hope the audience will take from the concert?
I hope they travel to another place through the music. I want them to loose themselves in the music and the sounds, be part of the experience. The audience contribute to the event, you feed from them. The more they participate, they more you give of yourself. When I am on stage I become someone else, I give 100%; there is nothing else. I hope the audience come to learn, I want them to feel great, to come away feeling better for themselves. Music is such a special think for me, and I hope it is for my audience as well.
Maria Yiakoulis will be performing at the Everest Theatre at Seymour Theatre Centre City Rd (Cnr Cleveland St) Chippendale on Thursday 13th of April. The concert starts at 8.00pm and goes on till late. For more information call 8394 6666, 9750 0440 or 9750 9266 or visit the festival’s website (www.greekfestivalofsydney.com.au). For bookings call 1800 688 482. Further information can also be found on Maria’s website (www.yiakoulis.com).