Bringing rural Greece to town

Out just days ago, this month’s World Music Charts Europe (WMCE) – a syndicated effort that ranks the favorite albums of top-notch European radio producers specializing in world music – includes one Greek act among its Top 20, the creative ethnic-jazz group Mode Plagal’s recent third album, «Mode Plagal III,» a new entry at number 13. Like the group’s previous work, which has also generated favorable reviews, including a five-star rating for the band’s self-titled debut album from the US music magazine Modern Drummer, the Athens-based combo’s latest outing, released late last year, seems to be impressing listeners abroad. Though not based on actual album sales, the monthly WMCE charts, which are compiled on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union, do serve as a reliable guide for listeners and readers interested in getting acquainted with worthwhile sounds from other lands. Various radio stations and publications throughout Europe present each month’s WMCE charts, which are compiled by a panel of influential radio producers from 20 European countries, among them the BBC’s Charlie Gillett, who had helped promote major international rock acts such as Dire Straits and Elvis Costello in the late 1970s by airing demos of their unreleased work, before going on to focus his efforts outside the pop mainstream. Other recent Greek entries have included Savina Yiannatou, Kristi Stassinopoulou and Maryo. Regarding Mode Plagal’s chart entry, the commercially modest yet commendable feat comes as the latest reminder of some fruitful musical activity on the local circuit’s fringe by inspired, creative acts. These efforts are sadly being ignored (to varying degrees) by their homeland’s masses, yet are now finding appreciative ears abroad, through the world music circuit. «I’m not entirely sure about the rest of the band, but I feel more comfortable playing to audiences abroad. The reason could well have to do with my belief that, in Greece, our music is unlikely to catch on with the mainstream,» remarked Takis Kanellos, Mode Plagal’s drummer and co-founder, when asked to weigh his band’s experience of playing local and foreign shows. «Listeners here are not engaging themselves with the type of music we’re making – it’s kind of alternative, I’d say. Elsewhere, I think there’s a stronger interest for what we call ‘alternative’ music,» he added. An impeccably tight team of expressive, imaginative players, both in the studio and on stage, Mode Plagal have fused traditional, rhythmically irregular Greek melodies – mainly from the country’s northern regions of Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace – with jazz, funk, rock and even calypso elements, on three albums to date. The end result’s natural flow, accomplished not only through this band’s musical prowess but also through an uncanny intuition for what can and cannot work, gives the impression that Mode Plagal’s brand of ethnic-jazz fusion is not confined to awkward experimentalism, but was simply meant to be. The act’s seamless blend of contrasting worlds – or «Americanized» urbanization of centuries-old folk, or demotika, hailing from rural Greece – has not come instantly, however. Mode Plagal’s starting trio of Kanellos, Kleon Antoniou, on guitar, and Thodoris Rellos, on saxophone, are old friends who met over two decades ago, several years before they actually began playing music together. After filtering through various local jazz and rock groups, together and separately, the trio decided, in 1990, to begin experimenting with fusion. Five years later the three, backed by various associates, released their critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album, on a tiny independent label, Lazy Dog Records. Widespread critical acclaim prompted Lyra Records, the country’s largest independent label, to sign Mode Plagal for their follow-up, «Mode Plagal II,» in 2000. Antonis Maratos, a multi-instrumentalist who had guested as percussionist on the debut album, joined the band full time on electric bass. The addition, at the time, of a Hammond organist – Manos Saridakis, who is now undertaking further musical studies in the US and was recently replaced by Florian Mikuta – also bolstered Mode Plagal’s developing jazz-soul-latin-funk texture. Though strongly resembling its predecessor, «Mode Plagal III,» also on Lyra Records, is marked by an obvious difference: guest appearances by four female vocalists, which breaks with the band’s primarily instrumental past. Featured on five of the latest album’s 13 tracks are Iota Vei, a veteran in the traditional field; Savina Yiannatou, whose rising popularity on the world music circuit may have bolstered attention given to «Mode Plagal III» abroad, as well as domestic top-sellers Eleni Tsaligopoulou and Theodosia Tsatsou. Their recruitment for Mode Plagal’s third album has perhaps helped draw in new listeners. At home, signs of a growing local fan base were evident on the band’s recent mini-tour around parts of the country’s north – Ioannina, Corfu, Volos and Larissa – where the turnout was solid. In Ioannina, for example, the band filled a 600-capacity theater after having played a far smaller venue on its previous visit, Kanellos pointed out. Abroad, three recent shows in the Netherlands, and one apiece in Belgium and the UK, all prior to the band’s entry on the WMCE charts, seem to have established promise for more. «The response was quite enthusiastic. I think we’ve managed to set a precedent for a return, especially in the Netherlands,» Kanellos said. «The country has an established jazz circuit. People who came along to our shows also had plenty to ask about traditional Greek music.» As for the band’s future musical direction, Kanellos said that, at this stage, a more processed electronica-type sound of the band’s own compositions seemed likely. «We may process our sound a lot more on our next album. I can sense a trend toward a more modern sound in the group – but that’s not absolutely certain,» Kanellos said. «I think it’s natural for us to want to head elsewhere. I don’t mean to say that you can exhaust working with traditional music, but I think that our focus on the form may have become a little saturated. «Also, I think that we, too, feel the need to let others hear what we’re up to as musicians playing our own compositions,» he added.

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