Music constructing bridges

It doesn’t sound like Bosphorus but it doesn’t sound like Mode Plagal either,» Nikiforos Metaxas, the music director of the high-caliber Istanbul-based ensemble, said of its latest project, «Beyond the Bosphorus,» a collaborative effort with Mode Plagal, the Greek folk-jazz fusion group from Athens, at the album’s recent launch here. «In other words, we all feel terrible,» quipped Mode Plagal’s saxophonist, Theodoris Rellos. Most likely content with the result, a spillover of styles, which is what a true collaboration should be, both sides can afford a joke. On «Beyond the Bosphorus,» Metaxas’s specialized field of traditional styles from the East, meets with the more contemporary sounds of Mode Plagal. The Athens-based band went into the project an experienced worker of fusion, as proven on three acclaimed albums of old Greek folk tunes, mostly from the north, redressed as scintillating jazz-funk-rock-calypso. Putting the humorous touch – at the album’s launch – aside, music never seems to have been a laughing matter for Metaxas. Much of his work with Bosphorus, a group made up mostly of accomplished Turkish musicians, and various related side projects, all in Istanbul, has been heavily reliant on deep-rooted historical research. For the average listener, the approach and its results have weeded out the entertainment factor. A man of old-fashioned charm in both speech and appearance, without any signs of conceit, Metaxas tends to express apprehension of newer trends, in music and other things. The Congo-born-and-raised Metaxas told Kathimerini English Edition that he went into this latest project feeling comfortable despite Mode Plagal’s «electric» sound and his overall avoidance of virtually anything modern. «That’s because they’re familiar with Istanbul, not ignorant of the city’s history, music’s Eastern ways, and the overall musical scene there,» Metaxas noted during an interview in Athens. «As Bosphorus, it’s difficult for me to work with Greek musicians. The Athens scene is a metropolis that gobbles everything up quickly. Istanbul has a different kind of digestive system. Very few Greeks today know about the city’s reality. Mode Plagal have spent time in Istanbul – days and sometimes months,» he added, while acknowledging the city’s chaotic nature. Metaxas, nowadays a resident of Heybeli Ada, a small, quiet island off Istanbul, was joined there by Vassiliki Papageorgiou, a vocalist and lyricist, who quickly integrated with Bosphorus. Mode Plagal have performed their own shows to a keen and growing Turkish audience in recent years, while two years ago, they joined Bosphorus in Izmir for a joint performance to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Greek Nobel Prize-winning poet George Seferis, who was born in the city. Also, Rellos, the group’s saxophonist, has frequently traveled to Istanbul since 1992, as a student of Byzantine music under Metaxas and other tutors. Metaxas first arrived in Istanbul almost two decades ago, in 1985, traveling initially on a small scholarship granted by the European Cultural Center of Delphi to study differences between Greek and Turkish music, particularly Byzantine and Ottoman musical traditions, and shed new light on neglected traditional instruments. He originally intended to spend a year delving into his studies before returning to Greece to lecture on his findings. But his students here are still waiting, as Metaxas is still based in Istanbul and does not appear likely to return any day soon. «A year definitely wasn’t enough to learn all that I needed to learn. I had to go on and study Islam, because traditional music in the East is closely tied with religion,» explained Metaxas. «I still haven’t completed my cycle of studies,» he added. Papageorgiou joined him in Turkey in 1993. She had traveled to Istanbul to perform with a rebetika group but remained and has since been a regular collaborator with Bosphorus and the ensemble’s side projects. Metaxas and Papageorgiou, a crystal-clear vocalist with a background in Greek folk music, as well as heritage from Asia Minor, are part of an ethnic Greek minority of less than 2,000 in Istanbul, a congested city with a population of approximately 17 million. Representing the city and region’s dominant Greek past – up until 1923, when a massive population exchange policy between Greece and Turkey was implemented to diffuse bilateral tension – the two have devoted themselves to building musical bridges between the historically rival nations. «It’s not easy. To be honest, not having lived in the city during its great Greek past, we’re obliged to try to find reasons for our existence there,» remarked Metaxas. He discounted the ongoing political initiatives and their subsequent signs of possible improvement in Greek-Turkish relations as efforts generated by political expediency – from both sides. With Papageorgiou’s arrival, Bosphorus has steered away from the group’s initial emphasis on Turkish classical music. The band and its various offshoots have injected heightened personal creativity. Papageorgiou has provided Greek lyrics to some of the group’s work, which includes original compositions based on tradition. Traditional Greek themes have also been introduced to the ensemble’s developing Greek-Turkish blend. Commenting on the «Beyond the Bosphorus» album, both Metaxas and Papageorgiou stressed the importance of striving for a seamless blend. «We don’t feel that there has been a clash. Instead, I think there’s an overall spirit of unity on the album which brings it all together,» said Metaxas. «The point is to blend the components without degrading them, or to unite them despite the differences,» added Papageorgiou, who, like Metaxas, exudes old-fashioned charm. She wrote lyrics for seven of the album’s 16 tracks. Mode Plagal’s Rellos and Kleon Antoniou, the group’s guitarist, provided three songs apiece, and fellow group member Takis Kanellos, the Greek group’s drummer, contributed two compositions. Traditional Turkish songs and songs by one of Bosphorus’s seven Turkish members, Hasan Essen, are also included. Bosphorus has dedicated the album to Istanbul – old and new, «as the city is today. It’s not a project with a museum quality,» Papageorgiou noted. Metaxas added: «We’ve tried to capture the city’s contemporary outlook, its modern mood, today’s pain. Because this city feels pain and sadness. As a city that has never really belonged entirely to Europe or Asia, wedged between two continents and having been the center of two empires, it has always conveyed a sort of heightened spirituality. Our problem has been to try and transfer this metaphysical dimension onto the record.»

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