Like every big city, Athens has its jazz and improvisation scene; the guitarist Yiorgos Magoulas is one of its protagonists. We met him in Athens a few months ago in a hip – but very pleasant – hotel in the middle of Plaka, the Hermes. Yiorgos Magoulas: “It’s incredible that we should meet up here. My grandparents used to live in this street, a few houses away. Both my father and I were born and reared here. That’s pretty unusual, as almost everyone who lives in the capital comes from the countryside or from an island and sooner or later returns to the village they were born. I don’t have that bond. I often wonder about it. What if I hadn’t been born in Athens? Why do I play jazz now? Until five years ago, I was mainly interested in folk and in gypsy brass bands. Now I mainly operate on the improvisation and minimalism scene, in which contemporary classical plays a major role. You could say I have been adopted by them. But who knows what I will be doing five years from now. I travel all the time, literally and figuratively, precisely because I don’t have those roots like other people.”
The road to Bolivia
It was this constant searching that set Magoulas on the trail of the Bolivian string instrument known as the charango. Magoulas: “I discovered the charango thanks to Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack for the film The Motorcycle Diaries. Its origins go back to the time of the Spanish conquistadores, who had their own stringed instruments, including a kind of lute. The local people came up with a smaller version.” So how come he didn’t opt for the Greek baglamas or tzouras, the smaller version of the bouzouki? “That’s just the way I am: I want to keep on discovering things. In this case, I made things really difficult for myself, as you can’t just buy a charango in any old music shop – mainly because the instrument is made from a number of different kinds of wood, so it’s not exactly cheap. In the end, I managed to buy one with strings that were tuned in pairs like those of a lute. That makes it easy to play chords with a melody on top. Just like a pianist using his right and left hands. You get melody and harmony at the same time and, on top of that, the special sound of the instrument itself, of course.”
The will to change
Food and politics are still the favourite topics of conversation in Greece, and that goes for musicians too. As a music teacher, Magoulas is in regular contact with various strata of the population. Which gives him a broad base from which to assess the current situation. Magoulas: “Like lots of people, I’m angry because a dream has broken down. But gradually we are realising that mistakes were made and that we have to start with a clean slate. Now the next phase is coming, in which everyone has to work together to change things. That will is there in lots of people. Artists have their own responsibility here, which they have to face up to. They can make the difference on a number of points. One side-effect is that a lot of young people are going back to the villages they came from, because there is no work in the city and thus no money and nothing to eat. I can’t do that because, as I said, I grew up here, so I’m hit twice as hard. Thankfully, I’m not on my own. There are others who find themselves in the same situation. Each of us in our own way, we try to offer a positive message, whether through music or some other art form.” You can hear the soundtrack Magoulas composed for this highly topical theme at the Marni. Certainly, for anyone who is a fan of the Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou and the ECM sound, this concert is a must.
Yiorgos Magoulas + Diminuita, 21/1, €9 > 16, 20.00, Marni
WINTERJAZZ • 14 > 25/1, Marni, rue de Vergniesstraat 25, Elsene/Ixelles, 02-639.09.82, www.theatremarni.com & Flagey, Heilig Kruisplein/place Sainte-Croix, Elsene/Ixelles, 02-641.10.20, www.flagey.be