When Savina Yannatou steps on stage with Primavera en Salonico, her seven-man backing group, you can sense magic in the air. As the band slides into a hypnotic Mediterranean groove, the tension slowly builds. Then Yannatou begins to sing, taking the audience into another dimension, a place where space, time and geography are suspended, filling listeners with a soulful sound that’s at once achingly spiritual and frighteningly earthy, a pure timeless cry beyond words.
Ever since she appeared on the international stage with Anoixi Sti Saloniki, her first collaboration with Primavera en Salonico, critics have been struggling to describe the quality of Yannatou’s vocals. She has an impressive multi-octave range that can soar in a heartbeat from a girlish giggle to the ageless howl of a dying old woman, all delivered with a clarity and lack of effort that is astonishing to experience.
On Sumiglia, her latest effort, she sings “Tulbah,” a Palestinian wedding song, and during an extended instrumental improvisation, she matches her voice to the pitch and timbre of Kyriakos Gouventas’s violin and Haris Lambrakis’s ney. The voice and the instruments spin together in a complex dance until it’s impossible to tell one from the other. “Yes, that effect is good,” Yannatou says with characteristic modesty. “I like when it happens, but I don’t know how to explain the technique; it’s something I never learned.”
With her remarkable vocal chops, you’d think Yannatou was born to be a singer, but being a professional musician was never one of her goals. “I always liked music and sang a lot when I was a child. I was in a choir and I learned to play guitar, but I never thought I’d be singer. When I listened to some voices, I would think I’d like to have that same voice, but it was because of the feeling the voice created in me. I was very lucky, I think, because I was not pushed or driven to be a singer. A friend of mine, Lena Platonos, started composing songs and asked me to sing them, so maybe it was a coincidence or serendipity.”
Yannatou recorded many songs by Platonos and together they helped launch Lillipoupoli [lilly poo pully], a national children’s radio program that combined music and storytelling. In 1989 she entered a musical graduate program at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, returning home to record an album of her own compositions, Is King Alexander Alive? (1983), and to study free improvisation. Her desire was to move toward some fusion of jazz and modern art music. Then fate stepped in.
“When I was in London, the musicians I knew were improvising a lot, making up their own music. I became interested in that approach and my intention was to improvise more and more, to move in a direction of free music. Then someone at my record company asked me if I would do an album of Sephardic songs from Thessalonica (a region of Greece). It happened that I knew some of the songs, and liked them, so I was happy to do it.”
The backing band on Anoixi Sti Saloniki included the men who would become Primavera en Salonico, the Ladino (the dialect of the Sephardic Jews) translation of Anoixi Sti Saloniki (Spring in Salonica.) “When we did this album, I didn’t feel it was a turning point. We never thought the audience in Greece would like this record because it was in a foreign language. When the radio started playing it and people liked it, it was a big surprise.”
The members of Primavera en Salonico have varied backgrounds stretching from free jazz to folk. Arranger and multi-instrumentalist Kostas Vomvolos assembled the band to back Yannatou on Anoixi, but after a few concerts it was obvious that something special was happening. “When Kostas suggested making a permanent group, the others accepted,” Yannatou said. “At first there was no form to the collaboration. Kostas would make all the orchestrations,