Singer, songwriter, composer
Blending the music of many different cultures, particularly from the Mediterranean Basin, singer Savina Yannatou first gained a following in her native Greece in live radio performances beginning in 1979. In recent years her haunting renditions of traditional Medieval, Renaissance, Saphardic, and many other styles of music, with a unique seasoning of improvisational jazz thrown in, have reached a worldwide audience. After playing concerts in Jerusalem, Melbourne, and many other far-flung locales, she first reached American audiences with the release of her album Mediterranea in the United States in 2000. In 2002 a contract with the ECM label brought her distribution throughout Europe and a release of Terra Nostra in the United States, along with associated North American concert tours.
Savina Yannatou, who was born in Athens, Greece, began singing as a child, often accompanying her sister. Her early influences included American folk singer Joan Baez, whose strength as a woman in a male-dominated field she admired. Yannatou was trained as a classical musician at the Greek National Conservatory, at the Workshop of Vocal Arts in Athens, and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. But Yannatou has gone on to forge her own musical style that, while classically influenced, is nevertheless all her own.
Yannatou became a professional singer in 1979, while still in school. This was when she landed a recurring singing gig on a radio show hosted by the highly regarded Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis on the Greek National Radio 3 station. The musical form that would later define her work, folk music from around the Mediterranean Basin, was not used by Yannatou until 1986 when Greek composer Nikos Kypourgos asked her to record several Greek lullabies for an album called Lullabies, after the birth of his own daughter.
Singing folk music was a revelation for Yannatou, one that, as she told Nondas Kitsos in the online magazine RootsWorld, "opened a new road for me." Although at first reluctant to perform folk music, Yannatou found that the form allowed her to express herself in new ways, and she found that the music was easily adaptable to her style of singing.
Yannatou continued her exploration of folk music in 1994 with an album called Springtime in Salonika. Commissioned by a professor at Thessaloniki University in Greece, the album began as an academic research project, and was the result of a collaboration between Yannatou and the newly-formed Primavera en Salonico group, with which Yannatou has continued to work. Springtime in Salonika featured Sephardic Jewish songs from Thessaloniki that are sung in Spanish. Yannatou herself conducted much of the academic research from which the album stemmed, and she chose the songs on the album to best reflect the community in Thessaloniki that gave them birth. Springtime in Salonika was well received by critics and scholars alike, as a heartfelt and moving interpretation of an all-but-forgotten style of music.
In her next work, Songs of the Mediterranean (released in the United States as Mediterranea ), Yannatou widened her focus to include the entire Mediterranean Basin, selecting songs with the help of musicologists and trusted friends to produce a work of more universal appeal. First released on Yannatou's Greek label, Lyra, the album found its way to the United States in 2000 via the Sounds True label. Upon its release in the United States, Tami Simon of Billboard praised Yannatou's artistry, calling it "as pure as it is haunting." Yannatou next collaborated with Lambros Liavas, a well-regarded musicologist based in Athens, to put together Virgin Maries of the World. This album featured songs about the Virgin Mary and, like Songs of the Mediterranean, featured Yannatou singing with the Primavera en Salonico group.
A live album followed, titled Terra Nostra, which included songs from her previous three albums as well as several previously unrecorded songs. The title, which means "Our Land," represented for Yannatou the unifying force of music through songs that have vastly different origins, but which nevertheless speak to the same human experience. She told Kitsos, "I mean the Earth in general, everybody's! It's not 'ours,' my land, your land, but everybody's."
As distinctive as Yannatou's style is, she adheres as much as possible to an accurate interpretation of the music. This means that, while she may embellish with improvisational touches here and there, or allow her voice to carry her own feelings about the music, "I do not intervene in the basic form of the song," she told Kitsos. Nevertheless, she is known for her improvisations as much as for her strict interpretations of traditional music, a high wire act that by all accounts she performs to perfection.
Asked to name some of her recent influences, Yannatou has mentioned American songwriter Leonard Cohen. This may seem strange, considering that Cohen is known for speaking rather than singing the lyrics of his songs, but Yannatou has admired the warmth he brings to his work, a crucial element for Yannatou in her ever-expanding quest to reach people of all nationalities. At the other end of the vocal spectrum, Yannatou has continued to be inspired by the music of Greek American songwriter Diamanda Galas, whose singing one critic has likened to the screams of the valkyries, the demon women of ancient mythology.
Turning for a time from folk music, Yannatou teamed with well-known Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis in 2002 to create an album of Hadjidakis's compositions sung by Yannatou. Yannatou's association with the music of Hadjidakis had begun years before, when she performed on Hadjidakis's radio show on Greek national radio, and she has often sung his music in concerts. The release of this album, whose title in English is I Am Off to Tell the Clouds, marked the first time she had recorded his songs. Much of the music had been covered by other singers, so Yannatou chose a personal approach to the songs, expressing herself in a way that was uniquely hers. The result was an album with sparse instrumentation, with her voice as the main focus.
For the Record …
Born in Athens, Greece. Education: Attended Greek National Conservatory, the Workshop of Vocal Arts in Athens, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Attended music school at the Greek National Conservatory, at the Workshop of Vocal Arts in Athens, and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, 1970s; performed regularly on Lillipoupoli radio show on Greek National Radio 3 beginning in 1979; released Is King Alexander Alive?, 1983; Lullabies, 1985; Spring in Salonika, 1995; Songs of the Mediterranean, 1998; Virgin Maries of the World, 1999, all on Lyra; released Songs of the Mediterranean in U.S. as Mediterranea, on Sounds True label, 2000; released Rosadas Rosas, Lyra, 2000; released Terra Nostra, Lyra, 2001; released Terra Nostra, on ECM, 2002; released Pao na Po sto Synnefo, Lyra, 2002.
In late 2002 and early 2003, ECM released Terra Nostra outside of Greece, including in the United States. That spring Yannatou traveled to concert dates in Washington, D.C., and New York City. The concerts in the United States were well received, and critic Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post marveled at Yannatou's beautiful "unexpected juxtapositions" of different cultural influences. Yannatou returned to the United States in early 2004, playing in the GLOBALfest hosted by New York City's Public Theater. American audiences were thrilled by Yannatou's voice, and the singer's agent was soon busy booking concerts throughout North America well into 2005.
Yannatou has continued her work with Primavera en Salonico into the indefinite future, and continues to perform live with Tunisian singer Lamia Bedioui, who collaborated with her on Mediterranea and Terra Nostra.
Is King Alexander Alive?, Lyra, 1983.
Lullabies, Lyra, 1985.
Spring in Salonica, Lyra, 1995.
Songs of the Mediterranean, Lyra, 1998; reissued as Mediterranea, Sounds True, 2000.
Virgin Maries of the World, Lyra, 1999.
Rosa das Rosas, Lyra, 2000.
Terra Nostra, Lyra, 2001; reissued, ECM, 2002.
Pao na Po sto Synnefo, Lyra, 2002.
Age (Melbourne, Australia), October 25, 2002, p. 4.
Billboard, September 9, 2000.
Jerusalem Post, March 5, 2000, p. 7.
Washington Post, April 19, 2003, p. C9.
"Biography," Diamanda Galas Official Website, http://www.diamandagalas.com/biography.htm (February 24, 2004).
Savina Yannatou Official Website, http://www.savinayannatou.com (February 19, 2004).
"Savina Yannatou: An Interview," RootsWorld, http://www.rootsworld.com/interview/yannatou.html (February 19, 2004).